LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- In one of the largest liberations of kidnap victims, at least 187 people including babies have been freed in the country's troubled north, police announced.
Nigerian security forces rescued the hostages from a forest in Zamfara state where they had been held for many weeks, Zamfara police spokesperson Mohammed Shehu said in a statement. He said they were released "unconditionally," indicating that no ransoms were paid.
The hostages in Zamfara were freed on Thursday as a result of "extensive search and rescue operations," and were helped by sweeping security measures including a shutdown of mobile phone networks and restrictions on gatherings and movements in Zamfara state, Shehu said.
"The new security measures in the state have been yielding tremendous results, as they have led to the successful rescue of many abducted victims that run into hundreds, and (they) have been reunited with their respective families," Shehu said. Nigeria's security agencies will continue working "to ensure the return of lasting peace and security in the state," he said in the statement.
The people had been kidnapped by armed bandits who operate in remote forest reserves in Nigeria's northwest. Gangs of the outlaws on motorcycles attack rural villages where they murder, rape, steal and take hostages. The large bands often outnumber police and security in the settlements they attack. There are thousands of such bandits, according to security experts.
The bandits are often better equipped than the Nigerian military, according to Abdulaziz Yari, a former governor of Zamfara state, the center of the crisis. In July this year, they shot down a Nigerian military fighter jet in Zamfara, he said.
The security situation in northwest Nigeria has been deteriorating in recent months and has had an "increasingly suffocating effect" on the economy of the region, Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press.
In addition to increasing internal security measures, the Nigerian government must improve security along Nigeria's border with its northern neighboring Niger, he said. The area is a notorious route for the bandits some of whom are said to camp in vast forest lands between Nigeria and Niger, he said.
The border security "needs to be taken as seriously as the internal security operations," he said, adding that there is "a serious deficit of will" to tackle the crisis both at the federal, state and local government levels.