DAKAR, Senegal — A hundred people in northwest Nigeria have been freed 42 days after gunmen went on a kidnapping rampage in their village, police said. Among the victims: dozens of mothers with small children.

The Zamfara state captives are the latest faces of the mass abduction crisis in Africa’s most populous country. Kidnappings have spiked this year, despite heightened military intervention and mounting public outrage. More than 1,000 students have been swiped from their schools since December — often dozens at a time.

Over the weekend, attackers elsewhere in Zamfara struck five villages and forced at least 60 people into the woods, officials said, after killing a police officer and two community leaders.

Authorities refer to such perpetrators as “bandits.” The gangs have built a grim industry kidnapping Nigerians for ransom and largely operate without a guiding ideology, researchers say, although some have appeared to work with extremist groups in the nation’s northeast, including Boko Haram.

Police and state security forces liberated the 100 victims from a Zamfara forest hideout late Tuesday, police spokesman Muhammed Shehu said.

Photos published in Nigerian media show rows of women seated on the ground, cradling babies. They had been held since June 8.

“We were able to rescue them without paying any ransom,” Shehu said, adding that “repentant” bandits helped foster a dialogue. No arrests were made, he said, declining to specify if that was part of the deal.

Kidnappers abducted at least 2,371 people across Nigeria in the first half of 2021, according to research from SBM Intelligence, a consultancy in the commercial capital, Lagos. That averages out to about 13 people per day.

The attacks unfolded mostly in the northern states, and abductors collectively demanded tens of millions of dollars in ransom. Estimates on payments made are hard to quantify, researchers say, because transactions tend to happen in secret.

In the past, kidnappers primarily targeted wealthy people and foreigners. Now they strike indiscriminately, holding up public buses and boarding schools with weak security — the most accessible education option for many rural children.

Villagers have condemned slow response times from security forces and a lack of resources to defend themselves.

The abductions embarrass local governments, which have quietly paid ransoms to avoid negative attention, said Bulama Bukarti, a security analyst and human rights lawyer from the country’s northeast.

“It is now the most lucrative industry in northern Nigeria,” Bukarti said. “Criminals don’t get punished for their crimes.”

The forested countryside provides gangs ample cover, he added, and porous borders allow a stream of weapons to reach the wrong hands.

On Sunday, the Nigerian Air Force said bandits shot down a fighter jet in Zamfara, reflecting what analysts called a troubling growth in firepower. The pilot survived by ejecting from the cockpit before escaping to an army base.

That takedown came less than two weeks after Nigeria’s broadcast regulator wrote a letter to media outlets, urging them to avoid “divisive rhetoric” when reporting on crime and “glamorizing” kidnappings.

Some journalists saw the order as further censorship in a nation that outlawed Twitter in June and threatened to punish those who defy the ban.

“It exposes the government’s innermost headache,” said Fisayo Soyombo, founder of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism in Lagos. “It is the embarrassment caused by local and international coverage of the abductions — not the anguish of the victims and their families.”

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