Scores of people were kidnapped in two days on a dangerous road in northern Nigeria, according to residents, in an outbreak of crime unconnected to the Boko Haram insurgency.
The kidnappings took place on Saturday and Sunday on a notorious road near the border of Kaduna state with Zamfara state in an area increasingly targeted by criminal gangs who raid villages and steal cattle in bloody attacks.
Earlier this month, 71 people were killed in the same district of Birnin Gwari after a bloody clash between armed bandits and militiamen.
“A lot of people were kidnapped at the weekend and taken into the bush by kidnapping gangs,” Birnin Gwari resident Abdu Gajere told AFP.
The kidnappers set up barricades on a 100-kilometre (60-mile) stretch of the Buruku-Birnin Gwari highway, forcing vehicles to stop and taking people into the bush, he said.
“The kidnappers had a field day. Scores of people were taken because more than 10 vehicles including buses were emptied and abandoned along different points of the highway. All the occupants were kidnapped….
“From what we learned the kidnappers have started contacting families of their hostages for ransom,” he added.
Isah Muhammad Galadima, media aid to the Emir of Birnin Gwari, a traditional ruler, confirmed the kidnappings.
The kidnappers took advantage of a lull in security on the road as a result of local elections taking place at the time, said Galadima.
“Around 100 people were abducted over the weekend,” Galadima said.
“They came en masse on motorbikes,” he said. “This road is full of potholes so cars have to slow down.”
Kaduna state police spokesman Mukhtar Aliyu, however, said that the reports of the kidnappings were an “exaggeration”.
“I don’t have any reports of kidnappings or abductions that have occurred last weekend,” Aliyu said.
He added that police were deployed on the road to stop kidnappings.
Kidnappings for ransom happen often in Nigeria, a major oil and gas producer on the continent that is blighted by poverty despite its wealth.
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On Wednesday, a Syrian construction worker was kidnapped in the northwest state of Sokoto, said state police spokeswoman Cordelia Nwawe.
Police who were dispatched to rescue the construction worker were ambushed by the kidnappers and three were killed in the fight, she said.
Nigeria is battling an array of security threats across the country, from Boko Haram jihadists in the northeast to oil militants in the south.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been criticised for failing to curb the violence, which is becoming a key election issue ahead of the upcoming presidential polls in 2018.