Soldiers, police personnel and vigilantes are currently tracking the abductors of no fewer than 31 train passengers who were whisked away from the Tom Ikimi Train Station, Igueben, Edo State, on Saturday.
Among the victims are the Manager of the station, Godwin Okpe and head of security of the station, simply identified as Ikhayere and 29 passengers.
The incident is coming 10 months after bandits attacked the Abuja-Kaduna train service, killing 14 passengers and abducting 65 others. They were released after spending months in captivity and paying ransoms.
The Managing Director and Chief Executive of Nigeria Railway Corporation, Fidel Okhiria confirmed to The PUNCH on Sunday that security agencies were on the trail of the abductors believed to be armed herdsmen.
He said, “The police, vigilante and Army are all after the people in the bush; that’s all I can say. There are certain things that we need to clear before we issue a statement.”
The Force Public Relations Officer, Muyiwa Adejobi, also affirmed that efforts were ongoing to rescue the abductees.
“We will give necessary support to Edo State Police command and Railway Police Command on the rescue of the abducted victims; efforts are being intensified to rescue them and arrest the culprits,’’ he assured.
When asked about the nature of support being given to the state command, Adejobi simply stated, ‘’Support is support. It’s a security matter’’ and declined further comment.
The Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, had dispatched police special squads, including the Intelligence Response Team and Anti-Terrorism Squad to Edo State to rescue the victims.
The squads, it was gathered, would complement the efforts of the police in the state.
A senior officer stated, ‘’The IG has deployed the IRT and the anti-terrorism squad to Edo from Force headquarters. But the security agencies should have taken pre-emptive measures by deploying armed agents around the stations.
“There are communities around the area who can also give information to the security agencies. Though the area is forested, it is not that thick.
‘’They (security agencies) should liaise with the community and vigilantes for information on the kidnappers. There was a time I complained about that station when I was going to Warri. It is a bit lonely and isolated; it is not by the roadside. I don’t know why they didn’t take note of that fact. I saw a few policemen but they were not enough.
‘’They should have posted at least 10 policemen to guard that station. I know they have closed the terminal at Ayangba road; they are using the one at Itakpe. They should have taken note of the incident that led to the shutdown of the terminal at Ajaokuta.’’
The two children aged between two and five, whose parents were believed to have been abducted, were in the custody of the Police Headquarters in Agbor, Delta State.
Most of the victims, it was learnt, were from the South-South and South-East.
Efforts to confirm from the state police spokesman, Chidi Nwabuzor, if the children were in the custody of police did not succeed as calls to his mobile phone did not go through neither did he respond to an SMS sent to him.
This newspaper reports that the Itakpe-Warri train is the only train service for passengers going to the South-East and South-South.
Passengers going to Benin, Warri, Agbor, Asaba, Port Harcourt, Yenagoa and Aba are known to patronise the train service.
The Edo State Commissioner of Communication and Orientation, Chris Nehikhare, said one of the abducted victims escaped at 8.15pm on Saturday, noting that 31 others were still with their captors.
He also disclosed that a suspect had been taken into custody.
Nehikhare stated, “The kidnap is the most difficult occurrence in the state currently. Few armed men who came with vehicles at about 4pm started shooting indiscriminately at the Igueben train station, kidnapping 32 while many others were injured. They came with cars but took their victims into the bush on foot.
“The police, working with the vigilante and hunters, started combing the bush almost immediately and one suspect has been arrested and he is helping the police in their investigation.
“The Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu visited the scene of the incident and we are sure that with a suspect apprehended, the investigation will lead to the arrest of others and the rescue of the victims.
“The state government commends the police for their prompt response while we also praise the vigilantes and hunters who took part in the bush combing operation. We hope this will be the last time occurrence like this will happen in the state.’’
But the managing director of the NRC said the corporation could not confirm the number of abducted people. He stated, “We don’t know the number of persons abducted because when there is a stampede like that, you won’t know. It is not that they lined themselves up before they were carried. They would have taken some people that are not passengers. The only thing I can confirm is that they took two of our staff.”
The police spokesman for Edo State according to a report by AP, said the kidnappers “shot sporadically into the air” before taking the passengers, leaving some with bullet wounds, Nwabuzor said, “Rescue operations are underway to find the victims and arrest the abductors.”
Shedding light on the incident, an NRC worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “As I speak, two little children aged two and five years were seen inside the train and are with the Railway Police in our headquarters in Agbor. Their parents were abducted. The little girl aged five years was able to identify their area (community) in Warri.
“We understand that no fewer than 25 passengers were abducted. Among them are husbands and wives. Others are some shop owners and two NRC staff.’’
Narrating how the attack was carried out, the worker said, “The bandits appeared after the arrival of the train at the Ekehen Station. They started firing gunshots in the air and later made their way into the train, telling all passengers to lie down flat before ordering them outside into the nearby bushes.
During the attack, both passengers and non-passengers such as shop owners and okada riders were abducted. The victims were picked at random, depending on their clothes, dressing and the wrist watches they were wearing.
‘’In some cases, husbands and wives were picked; they also went away with some men and left their wives and vice versa. A survivor said the attackers were selecting those that were rich, those that wore expensive wrist watches and clothes; those that are fat and look well fed. In fact, a woman who was standing on the road was ordered to go back because she looked haggard.”