LAGOS: Sixteen children kidnapped when their school bus was hijacked in southern Nigeria this week were freed on Friday without a ransom being paid, a police spokesman said.
"They have been freed," Abia state police spokesman Geofrey Ogbonna said, adding there were 16 children involved instead of 15 as initially thought. "No ransom was paid … None of them was hurt."
He said a joint military and police operation freed the children early Friday, but could not provide details. No arrests had been made.
"We believe that those abductors will soon be arrested," he said.
The hijacking occurred on Monday on the outskirts of the city of Aba in Nigeria’s oil-rich south.
Police have said the gunmen ordered the bus driver to stop at gunpoint before taking the children of Abayi International School, both a nursery and primary school. Authorities have said all the children, believed to be between three and 10 years old, were Nigerian.
The kidnappers had demanded a 20 million naira ($128,900, €95,650) ransom, and parents of some of the children on Thursday begged the abductors to release them, saying they could not afford to pay the amount.
The hijacking signaled a disturbing escalation in the spate of kidnappings that had already provoked fear in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, while also drawing widespread condemnation in Nigeria.
Just last week, doctors in Aba state had gone on strike over what they said was the kidnap and murder of one of their colleagues.
Much of the city was shut down this week after the hijacking out of fears of further such attacks, and the military patrolled the streets on Thursday.
Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region has seen scores of kidnappings in recent years, often by criminal gangs seeking ransom payments but also by insurgents demanding a fairer distribution of oil revenue.
Most kidnappings initially involved foreign oil workers, but more recently the attackers have also targeted the children and relatives of wealthy Nigerians.
Most of those abducted have been freed unharmed, often after payment of a ransom.
President Goodluck Jonathan, running in elections to be held early next year and under intense pressure to reduce the wave of kidnappings, had called the hijacking "utterly callous and cruel" and pledged action to free the victims.
Their children’s release came as the country celebrated 50 years of independence on Friday.