MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — More than 300 boys remain missing after gunmen raided a secondary school in northwestern Nigeria, sparking fears of another mass kidnapping in Africa's most populous country.

Hundreds of children fled into the woods after attackers on motorbikes stormed the boarding school Friday night in Katsina state, which has been plagued by bandits abducting people for ransom.

Nigerian security forces searched for them all weekend, officials said, as parents took to the streets in protest, urging the government to find and protect their boys.

“So far we are yet to account for 333 pupils,” the state’s governor, Aminu Masari, told reporters Sunday.

Nigeria's president said the military exchanged fire with gunmen who kidnapped hundreds of students from a school in the country's northwest on Dec. 11. (Reuters)

The Science School, now empty and bullet-pocked, was a calm place of learning for 839 students — all boys — in the town of Kankara, parents in the area said.

“Parents are crying,” some chanted in the streets on Sunday. “We want justice. Kankara is bleeding.”

The attack was reminiscent of raids by Boko Haram, an extremist group that typically operates hundreds of miles away in the northeast. For Katsina, this level of violence is new.

The school is located near an area where violent gangs are known to operate. Those assailants — officials call them bandits — have never before pulled off such a huge abduction.

“I strongly condemn the cowardly bandits’ attack on innocent children,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement Saturday.

No group had asserted responsibility for the attack by Monday, and the government had recorded no deaths.

One teenager who escaped the kidnappers, speaking anonymously because he feared retaliation, said gunmen invaded the school after dark and rounded up dozens of boys.

“They split us into groups and led us into different directions in the forest,” he said.
The kidnappers seemed to be taking orders from someone on a phone, the teenager said — “No student should be shot or killed,” he remembers overhearing.

He said he was not sure how many other students were with him, but it was “too many” for the assailants to manage, so he and one other boy waited for the gunmen to seem distracted and then sprinted off into the night. They came upon a man on a motorbike — a good Samaritan, the teenager said — who drove them back to Kankara.

“I still can’t sleep,” he said, “because when I try to close my eyes, it feels like the bandits are coming back to pick me up.”

The chaos unfolded hundreds of miles from where Boko Haram usually strikes. The militants began a violent campaign in 2009 to rule northeastern Nigeria with an extreme form of Islamic law. One way they gained global notoriety: mass kidnappings of schoolchildren.

The group set off international alarm in 2014 after abducting more than 270 girls in the town of Chibok. Then-first lady Michelle Obama drew awareness to the crime with a viral hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls.

A similar rallying cry emerged on social media over the weekend as concerns mounted for the missing boys of Kankara: #BringBackOurBoys. The government has closed schools across the state, suspending the education of tens of thousands of students.

The attack started just after 10 p.m. Friday, said Usman Abubakar, the school’s principal. Bullets rang out for about an hour.

“The bandits in their numbers broke through the school gate and shot one of the policemen on duty on his leg,” he said.

The assailants continued to the staff quarters, where they briefly detained the wife of an employee, then ran away with her child.

They all fled when Nigerian soldiers arrived, Abubakar said, taking students with them into the bush.

The school is now investigating how many were abducted. Hundreds have reappeared after hiding in the woods.

Banditry became a menace for Katsina last year, said Hassan Aliyu, a civil servant in the state. “This incident is the first time that bandits have abducted students from a school,” he said.

More than 1,100 people were killed in gang violence in northern Nigeria in the first half of the year, according to an Amnesty International tally.

One mother of a missing student, Binta Ismail, rushed to the school when she learned of the kidnappings.

Her son is still gone, and so is her younger brother. She blasted the country’s leaders for failing to protect Katsina’s youth as the gang problem spread.

“The government does not value us at the moment,” she said.

Rich Nigerians, those who run the country, send their children to study abroad, Ismail said.

“None of their children have been victims — we are sure of that,” she said. “Because this affects poor children, nothing is treated with seriousness.”

Paquette reported from Dakar, Senegal.