* More than 300 boys abducted from a school last week
* Islamist militants claim responsibility in audiotape
* Parents fear time running out to bring the boys home
By Afolabi Sotunde and Ismail Abba
KATSINA, Nigeria, Dec 17 (Reuters) – Protesters marched in northwestern Nigeria on Thursday under a banner reading #BringBackOurBoys as pressure mounted on the government to improve security in the region and secure the release of more than 300 kidnapped boys.
Parents fear time is running out to bring the boys home. The Islamist group Boko Haram, which said in an unverified audio message that it was behind their abduction from a school on Dec. 11, has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters.
Dozens of people attended a march through the city of Katsina in response to The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), a civil society body that focuses on the welfare of northern Nigerians. Some chanted “Save northern Nigeria”.
The hashtag #BringBackOurBoys has been trending on Twitter in recent days and echoes a campaign that was launched to bring home more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014.
“Northern Nigeria has been abandoned at the mercy of vicious insurgents, bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, rapists and an assortment of hardened criminals,” said Balarabe Ruffin, CNG’s national coordinator.
He said there was a “huge vacuum in the political will and capacity of government to challenge” the kidnappers, who abducted the boys from the all-boys Government Science secondary school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state.
Around 320 boys are still missing, the Katsina state government has said.
If Boko Haram’s claim of responsibility is confirmed, it would mark an expansion beyond its northeastern base.
Late on Wednesday, Katsina state Governor Aminu Bello Masari told the BBC Hausa service the missing boys were in the forests of neighbouring Zamfara state.
An aide to Masari said soldiers and intelligence officers had been combing the Rugu forest, which stretches across Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger states, in search of the boys.
Regional security experts say the boys could be taken over the nearby border into Niger, which would make finding them harder.
Armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom, widely referred to as “bandits”, carry out attacks on communities across the northwest, making it hard for locals to farm, travel or tap rich mineral assets in some states such as gold.
Criminal gangs operating in the northwest have killed more than 1,100 people in the first half of 2020 alone, according to rights group Amnesty International.
In the northeast, Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have waged a decade-long insurgency estimated to have displaced about 2 million people and killed more than 30,000. They want to create states based on their extreme interpretation of sharia law.
(Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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