Gunmen kidnap dozens from school in central Nigeria

Gunmen from a suspected criminal gang stormed a school in central Nigeria on Wednesday, killing one student and kidnapping dozens of other pupils, teachers and relatives, the local government said, in the country's latest mass abduction.

President Muhammadu Buhari ordered security forces to coordinate a rescue operation, his office said, after gunmen in military uniforms raided the Government Science College in the town of Kagara in Niger state.

Details about the kidnapping were still emerging and a new tally came after initial reports from a government official and a security source that hundreds of students were snatched from the school, where they were staying in dormitories.

"They kidnapped 42 people from the school. They took away 27 students, along with three teachers. One student was killed. They also kidnapped 12 family members of the teachers," Muhammad Sani Idris, spokesman for Niger state's government, told AFP by phone.

He said 650 students had been in the school when it was attacked at 2:00 am (0100 GMT) on Wednesday.

Heavily-armed gangs known locally as "bandits" in northwest and central Nigeria have stepped up attacks in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging.

Buhari condemned the abduction and ordered security forces to coordinate an operation to rescue the students.

"The president has directed the armed forces and police to ensure immediate and safe return of all the captives," spokesman Garba Shehu said in a statement, without giving details on the number of missing.

The latest mass abduction comes only two months after 300 students were kidnapped from a school in Kankara in nearby Katsina, Buhari's home state, while the president was visiting the region.

The boys were later released after negotiations with government officials, but the incident sparked global outrage.

- 'Abhorrent' -

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called for the "immediate release" of those kidnapped on Wednesday. "Attacks on schools, on children are abhorrent and need to be condemned in the strongest terms."

"Attacks on schools and abductions of children are war crimes," Amnesty International said.

"Those found to be responsible of the abduction must be brought to justice," said the rights group's director in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho.

The UN children's agency UNICEF also called for the students' release.

"Children should feel safe at home and at school at all times -– and parents should not need to worry for the safety of their children when they send them off to school in the morning," UNICEF's Nigeria representative Peter Hawkins said.

Niger State Governor Abubakar Sani Bello ordered boarding schools in four areas to shut down until further notice.

"Government at all levels should also ensure that our schools are henceforth protected against heartless criminals who have apparently identified them as soft targets," Nigeria's Senate President Ahmad Lawan said.

- Tracking bandits -

Kidnap gangs in Nigeria's northwest and central states are just one challenge in Africa's most populous country, where security forces face ethnic clashes, jihadists in the northeast and piracy in the south.

A government official said earlier that some students escaped and a security source said a headcount had been underway to confirm how many were abducted.

A statement from the Senate said "security agencies were able to detect the coordinates of the area the students were taken to".

"We have deployed additional four units of mobile policemen to Niger (state)," police inspector general Mohammed Abubakar Adamu said.

The criminal group behind the attack was "known" he added.

"We assure you, we are going to work with our partners within the community to ensure these students are returned unharmed," Adamu said.

The region is increasingly a hub for criminal gangs who raid villages, killing and abducting residents after looting and torching homes.

Bandits are known to hide in camps in Rugu forest, which straddles Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states. Despite the deployment of troops, deadly attacks persist.

The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.

But there is growing concern they are being infiltrated by jihadists from the northeast who are waging a decade-old insurgency to establish an Islamic state.

The latest kidnapping incident comes three years after 111 schoolgirls were snatched by jihadists in Dapchi and nearly seven years after 276 girls were taken from Chibok in a raid that shocked the world.

"Nigeria has to declare a state of emergency on insecurity," said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development think tank.

"The government must secure the schools and urgently too, or else (the) Chibok, Dapchi and Kankara school raids will encourage others to do worse."