Nigeria’s military has claimed to have rescued 200 girls and 93 women from a notorious Boko Haram stronghold, but an army official said they were not those kidnapped from Chibok a year ago.
“Troops have this afternoon captured & destroyed three camps of terrorists inside the Sambisa forest & rescued 200 girls & 93 women,” defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said in a text message on Tuesday, referring to the area in north-east Borno state where the Islamists have bases.
Olukolade gave no indication as to how long it would take for the hostages to be identified, although an army spokesman said they were not from Chibok.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abduction of 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, also in Borno, on 14 April last year. Fifty seven girls escaped within hours of the attack but 219 remained in captivity.
In the weeks following the mass abduction, Nigerian security sources and locals said there were indications the girls had been taken to the Sambisa Forest. But defence officials and experts agreed it was probable they had been separated over the past 13 months, casting significant doubt on the possibility that they were being held together as a group.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has vowed to “marry them off” or sell them as slaves.
Boko Haram has been blamed for hundreds of other kidnappings, especially targeting women and girls across north-east Nigeria. Amnesty International estimates that the Islamists have kidnapped at least 2,000 women and girls since the beginning of last year.
The Chibok attack brought unprecedented worldwide attention to Nigeria’s Islamist uprising. It also sparked sharp criticism of the government’s initial response, with the outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, accused of indifference and trying to downplay the size of the kidnapping.
Celebrities and prominent personalities including the US first lady, Michelle Obama, joined the Twitter campaign BringBackOurGirls that attracted supporters worldwide.
Earlier this month, countries around the globe took part in marches and candlelight vigils to mark the first anniversary of the kidnappings. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot and nearly killed by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating girls’ education, used the occasion to renew calls for their release, describing the girls as “my brave sisters”. The 17-year-old criticised Nigerian and world leaders for not doing enough to free the girls.
Twenty one of the 57 girls who escaped are currently studying at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, the capital of neighbouring Adamawa state.
Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly from the Hausa language as “Western education is sin”, is seeking to create a hardline Islamic state and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadi group.
Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency in north-east Nigeria has left at least 15,000 dead and 1.5 million people homeless.
The Nigerian military has in recent months claimed a string of successes after launching a joint offensive against the militants with the help of soldiers from Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
But Boko Haram has been fighting back. Nigerian troops were notably forced to retreat from the group’s Sambisa Forest stronghold this week after a landmine blast killed one soldier and three vigilantes.