Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a boarding school in northern Nigeria on Friday, police said, the latest in a series of mass kidnappings of students in the West African nation.
Police and the military have begun joint operations to rescue the girls after the attack at the Government Girls Junior Secondary School in Jangebe town, according to a police spokesman in Zamfara state, Mohammed Shehu, who confirmed the number abducted.
One parent, Nasiru Abdullahi, told The Associated Press that his daughters, aged 10 and 13, are among the missing.
“It is disappointing that even though the military have a strong presence near the school they were unable to protect the girls,” he said. “At this stage, we are only hoping on divine intervention.”
Resident Musa Mustapha said the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from interfering while the gunmen spent several hours at the school. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
Several large groups of armed men operate in Zamfara state, described by the government as bandits, and are known to kidnap for money and to push for the release of their members from jail.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said Friday the government’s primary objective is to get all the school hostages returned safe, alive and unharmed.
“We will not succumb to blackmail by bandits and criminals who target innocent school students in the expectation of huge ransom payments,” he said. “Let bandits, kidnappers and terrorists not entertain any illusions that they are more powerful than the government. They shouldn’t mistake our restraint for the humanitarian goals of protecting innocent lives as a weakness, or a sign of fear or irresolution.”
He called on state governments to review their policy of making payments, in money or vehicles, to bandits.
“Such a policy has the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences,” Buhari said. He also said state and local governments must play their part by being proactive in improving security in and around schools.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the abductions and called for the girls' “immediate and unconditional release” and safe return to their families, calling attacks on schools a grave violation of human rights and the rights of children, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. chief reaffirmed U.N. support to Nigeria’s government and people “in their fight against terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime,” Dujarric said, and urged Nigerian authorities “to spare no effort in bringing those responsible for this crime to justice.”
“We are angered and saddened by yet another brutal attack on schoolchildren in Nigeria,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF representative in the country. “This is a gross violation of children’s rights and a horrific experience for children to go through.” He called for their immediate release.
Nigeria has seen several such attacks and kidnappings over the years, notably the mass abduction in April 2014 by jihadist group Boko Haram of 276 girls from the secondary school in Chibok in Borno state. More than a hundred of the girls are still missing.
Friday’s attack came less than two weeks after gunmen abducted 42 people, including 27 students, from the Government Science College Kagara in Niger State. The students, teachers and family members are still being held.
In December, 344 students were abducted from the Government Science Secondary School Kankara in Katsina State. They were eventually released.
Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted the recent abductions and tweeted that “Strong action is required from the authorities to turn the tide & keep schools safe.”
Amnesty International also condemned the “appalling attack,” warning in a statement that “the girls abducted are in serious risk of being harmed.”
Teachers have been forced to flee to other states for protection, and many children have had to abandon their education amid frequent violent attacks in communities, Amnesty said.
Soldiers from Eritrea systematically killed “many hundreds” of people, the large majority men, in a massacre in late November in the Ethiopian city of Axum, Amnesty International says in a new report, echoing the findings of an Associated Press story last week and citing more than 40 witnesses.
Crucially, the head of the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele. says the Amnesty findings “should be taken very seriously.” The commission’s own preliminary findings “indicate the killing of an as yet unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers” in Axum, its statement said.
The Amnesty report on what might be the deadliest massacre of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict describes the soldiers gunning down civilians as they fled, lining up men and shooting them in the back, rounding up “hundreds, if not thousands” of men for beatings and refusing to allow those grieving to bury the dead.
Over a period of about 24 hours, “Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys,” the report released early Friday says. “The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an earlier attack by a small number of local militiamen, joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones.”
The “mass execution” of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity, the report says, and it calls for a United Nations-led international investigation and full access to Tigray for human rights groups, journalists and humanitarian workers. The region has been largely cut off since fighting began in early November.
Ethiopia’s federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray region’s now-fugitive leaders, and Eritrea’s government dismissed the AP story on the Axum massacre as “outrageous lies.”
But even senior members of the Ethiopia-appointed interim government in Tigray have acknowledged the Eritrean soldiers’ presence and allegations of widespread looting and killing.
On Thursday, Ethiopia’s government acknowledged that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was investigating “allegations relating to incidents in the city of Axum” in collaboration with unnamed international experts.
But Ethiopia’s ambassador to Belgium, Hirut Zemene, told a webinar on Thursday that the alleged massacre in November was a “very highly unlikely scenario” and “we suspect it’s a very, very crazy idea.”
No one knows how many thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict between Ethiopian and allied forces and those of the Tigray regional government, which had long dominated Ethiopia’s government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death as access, while improving, remains restricted.
The presence of Eritrean soldiers has brought some alarm. The United States has repeatedly urged Eritrea to withdraw its soldiers and cited credible reports of “grave” human rights abuses. On Wednesday it asked, “Does the Eritrean military have sufficient control over its troops to prevent them from committing human rights abuses?”
Witnesses of the massacre in Axum told Amnesty International that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers jointly took control of the city but the Eritreans carried out the killings and then conducted house-to-house raids for men and teenage boys.
Bodies were left strewn in the streets after the events of Nov. 28 and 29, witnesses said.
“The next day, they did not allow us to pick the dead. The Eritrean soldiers said you cannot bury the dead before our dead soldiers are buried,” one woman told Amnesty International. With hospitals looted or health workers having fled, some witnesses said a number of people died from their wounds because of lack of care.
“Gathering the bodies and carrying out the funerals took days. Most of the dead appear to have been buried on 30 November, but witnesses said that people found many additional bodies in the days that followed,” the new report says.
After obtaining permission from Ethiopian soldiers to bury the dead, witnesses said they feared the killings would resume any moment, even as they piled bodies onto horse-drawn carts and took them to churches for burial, at times in mass graves.
The AP spoke with a deacon at one church, the Church of St. Mary of Zion, who said he helped count the bodies, gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials. He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend around the city.
After being left exposed for a day or more, the bodies had begun to rot, further traumatizing families and those who gathered to help.
The new report says satellite imagery shows newly “disturbed soil” beside churches.
A crisis over the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients has struck nations in Africa and Latin America, where warnings went unheeded at the start of the pandemic and doctors say the shortage has led to unnecessary deaths.
It takes about 12 weeks to install a hospital oxygen plant and even less time to convert industrial oxygen manufacturing systems into a medical-grade network. But in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as in less-populous nations, decisions to fully address inadequate supplies only started being made last month, after hospitals were overwhelmed and patients started to die.
The gap in medical oxygen availability “is one of the defining health equity issues, I think, of our age,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said he survived a severe coronavirus infection thanks to the oxygen he received.
Doctors in Nigeria anxiously monitor traffic as oxygen deliveries move through the gridlocked streets of Lagos. Desperate families of patients around the world sometimes turn to the black market. Governments take action only after hospitals are overwhelmed and the infected die by the dozens.
In Brazil’s Amazonas state, a pair of swindlers were caught reselling fire extinguishers painted to look like medical oxygen tanks. In Peru, people camped out in lines to get cylinders for sick relatives.
Only after the lack of oxygen was blamed for the deaths of four people at an Egyptian hospital in January and six people at one in Pakistan in December did governments address the problems.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said medical oxygen is a “huge critical need” across the continent of 1.3 billion people and is a main reason that COVID-19 patients are more likely to die there during surges.
Even before the pandemic, sub-Saharan Africa’s 2,600 oxygen concentrators and 69 functioning oxygen plants met less than half the need, leading to preventable deaths, especially from pneumonia, said Dr. John Adabie Appiah of the World Health Organization.
The number of concentrators has grown to about 6,000, mostly from international donations, but the oxygen produced isn't pure enough for the critically ill. The number of plants that can generate higher concentrations is now at 119.
Yet without formal requests from governments, nearly $20 billion in World Bank coronavirus funds for the world’s poorest countries has been left unspent, the organization told The Associated Press.
Nigeria was “struggling to find oxygen to manage cases” in January, said Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of its Centre for Disease Control.
A main hospital in Lagos, a city of 14.3 million, saw its January virus cases increase fivefold, with 75 medical workers infected in the first six weeks of 2021. Only then did President Muhammadu Buhari release $17 million to set up 38 more oxygen plants and another $670,000 to repair plants at five hospitals.
Some oxygen suppliers have dramatically raised prices, according to a doctor at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to reporters. That has driven up the cost of a cylinder by 10 times, to $260 — more than the average monthly wage — and a critically ill patient could need up to four cylinders a day.
Money and influence don't always help.
Femi Odekunle, a Nigerian academic and close ally of the president, went without adequate oxygen for nearly 12 days at the Abuja University Teaching Hospital until two state governors and Ministry of Health officials intervened. He died anyway, and relatives and friends blame the oxygen shortage, the Premium Times newspaper reported. The hospital attributed his death to his severe infection.
In Malawi, the president promised funding for protective gear for medical workers and the immediate purchase of 1,000 oxygen cylinders.
Corruption was blamed for defects in a new oxygen plant at a hospital in Uganda's capital of Kampala, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported. Workers had to rely on rusty oxygen cylinders that were blamed for the deaths of at least two patients.
“While top health officials basked in the oxygen of good publicity, patients were literally choking to death,” the newspaper said. “It appears that behind the delays and the funding gaps, corners were being cut.”
Leith Greenslade, coordinator of the Every Breath Counts Coalition, which advocates for wider access to medical oxygen, said the looming shortages were apparent last spring.
“Very little was done. Now you have a second wave, not just in Africa but in Latin America and Asia, and the oxygen shortages are becoming at crisis levels,” she said.
The World Bank has set aside $50 billion for the world’s poorest countries alone during the pandemic, but only $30.8 billion has been allocated, including $80 million for oxygen-related upgrades.
“We make money available for countries, but it’s countries, governments who have to make a decision about how much they spend and what they spend it on,” said Dr. Mickey Chopra, who helps with the World Bank’s global medical logistics response.
A global task force focusing on oxygen was formally announced Thursday and will include the World Health Organization and World Bank, among others. Already, $90 million was identified in immediate oxygen funding needs for 20 developing countries, including Nigeria and Malawi.
Many countries view oxygen supplies primarily as an industrial product for more lucrative sectors such as mining, not health care, and it has not been a focus of many international donors. Oxygen manufacturing plants require technicians, good infrastructure and electricity — all in short supply in developing nations.
The main provider of medical oxygen to Brazil’s Amazonas state, White Martins, operated at half capacity before the pandemic. The first infections hit the isolated city in March and led to so many deaths that a cemetery was carved out of the jungle.
Doctors in its capital of Manaus were forced last month to choose which patients to treat as oxygen supplies dwindled.
Brazil’s Supreme Court began an investigation into management of the crisis after White Martins said an “unexpected increase in demand” led to shortages.
“There was a lack of planning on behalf of the government,” said Newton de Oliveira, president of Indústria Brasileira de Gases, a major oxygen supplier.
Only after deaths averaged 50 a day did the government say it would build 73 oxygen plants in the state. Within a month, 26 were up and running.
Oxygen shortages remain critical in Peru, where Dani Luz Llamocca waited five days outside a distribution center in Lima, saying her virus-stricken father was down to less than half a tank of oxygen. She was willing to wait as long as it took. "If not, my father will die,” said Llamocca.
The WHO's Appiah said countries with mining industries could, with few changes, convert their systems to produce medical-grade oxygen.
India's national trade body for gas makers suggested just that last April, when the virus caseload was relatively low. Industrial storage tanks were repurposed at hospitals, said Surendra Singh, a manager for the Indian division of the multinational Linde corporation.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Saket Tiku, president of the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers Association. “The decision saved thousands of lives.”
The February storm is unforgiving, violently shaking the humanitarian rescuers’ vessel as they try to revive a faulty engine and save African migrants drifting in the Mediterranean Sea after fleeing Libya on unseaworthy boats.
Not only must they brave 70 kph (43 mph) winds and 4-meter (13-foot) waves, but also win the race against the Libyan coast guard, which has been trained and equipped by Europe to keep migrants away from its shores.
In recent days, the Libyans had already thwarted eight rescue attempts by the Open Arms, a Spanish NGO vessel, harassing and threatening its crew in the international waters of the central Mediterranean where 160 people have died so far this year.
The latest tragedy took place on Feb. 20, when a rubber boat carrying 120 people started taking in water and waited for hours until a commercial ship in the area arrived to help. Forty-one people drowned, including three children and four women, said the U.N.'s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration.
Those who are saved at sea are not necessarily safe. According to IOM, from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22 nearly 3,600 people, including dozens of women and children, have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya.
There, they are placed in squalid detention centers and are subject to abuse, torture, extortion and rape.
About 2,530 people have made it to Europe after departing Libya so far this year.
Among them is 3-month-old Moise, whose chubby cheeks barely stood out from underneath the oversized lifejacket that rescuers strapped on him as they transferred the baby and his Cameroonian mother to safety aboard the Open Arms rescue ship.
A day later, rescuers plucked 5-year-old Timi from a rubber dinghy under the intimidating gaze of the Libyan coast guard a few yards away. Together with her mother, she had embarked on the risky route to Europe through the Libyan desert six months ago to flee female genital mutilation in their native Ivory Coast, where the practice affects 55% of young girls, according to UNICEF.
Despite nausea and vomiting caused by the rough seas, the prospects of a safer future in Europe, together with warm blankets, helped Timi fall asleep on the overcrowded deck of the Open Arms ship.
It would take another three days of stormy navigation for the 146 people rescued by the group on its 80th mission in the central Mediterranean to reach a safe harbor in Sicily.
But before they can even begin the challenging process of starting a new life on European soil, they must board yet another ship and undergo a 14-day quarantine, a preventive measure imposed by the Italian government to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Until then, they can still only dream of a better life.
Ghana has become the first country in the world to receive vaccines acquired through the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative with a delivery Wednesday of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India.
The vaccines, delivered by UNICEF, arrived at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport early Wednesday and are part of the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines that COVAX is sending to several low- and middle-income countries. Ghana is among 92 countries that have signed onto the COVAX program, according to a statement by Ghana’s acting Minister of Information Kojo Oppong Nkrumah.
The West African nation of 30 million has recorded 81,245 cases and 584 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, according to figures from Ghana’s Health Services Tuesday.
Ghana's vaccination campaign will begin March 2 and will be conducted in phases among prioritized groups, beginning with health workers, adults of 60 years and over, people with underlying health conditions, frontline executive, legislature, judiciary, and their related staff, said Nkrumah.
“The government of Ghana remains resolute at ensuring the welfare of all Ghanaians and is making frantic efforts to acquire adequate vaccines to cover the entire population through bilateral and multi-lateral agencies,” he said.
In a joint statement, the country representatives of UNICEF and WHO described the arrival of the COVAX vaccines as a “momentous occasion” critical to bringing the pandemic to an end.
“After a year of disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic ... the path to recovery for the people of Ghana can finally begin,” said the statement.
The COVAX shipment to Ghana is the start of what will be the world's largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history, according to the statement. COVAX plans to deliver close to 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines around the world this year.
“Today marks the historic moment for which we have been planning and working so hard. With the first shipment of doses, we can make good on the promise of the COVAX Facility to ensure people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race for life-saving vaccines,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF's executive director.
“The next phase in the fight against this disease can begin -– the ramping up of the largest immunization campaign in history," said Fore. "Each step on this journey brings us further along the path to recovery for the billions of children and families affected around the world.”