MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – Nigerian troops rescued nearly 300 girls and women during an offensive Tuesday against Boko Haram militants in the northeastern Sambisa Forest, the military said, but they did not include any of the schoolgirls kidnapped a year ago.
The army announced the rescue on Twitter and said it was screening and interviewing the abducted girls and women.
Troops destroyed and cleared four militant camps and rescued 200 abducted girls and 93 women “but they are not the Chibok girls,” army spokesman Col. Sani Usman told The Associated Press.
Nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the northeastern town of Chibok by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in April 2014. The militants took the schoolgirls in trucks into the Sambisa Forest. Dozens escaped, but 219 remain missing.
The plight of the schoolgirls, who have become known as “the Chibok girls,” aroused international outrage and a campaign for their release under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Their kidnapping brought Boko Haram to the attention of the world, with even U.S. first lady Michelle Obama becoming involved as she tweeted a photograph of herself holding the campaign sign.
Boko Haram has kidnapped an unknown number of girls, women and young men to be used as sex slaves and fighters. Many have escaped or been released as Boko Haram has fled a multinational offensive that began at the end of January.
A military source who was in Sambisa told The Associated Press that some of the women rescued Tuesday fought back, and that Boko Haram was using armed women as human shields, putting them as their first line of defence.
The Nigerian troops managed to subdue them and rounded them all up, and some said they were forced to fight for Boko Haram, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Boko Haram also has used girls and women as suicide bombers, sending them into crowded market places and elsewhere.
A month ago the Nigerian military began pounding the Sambisa Forest in air raids, an assault they said earlier they had been avoiding for fear of killing the Chibok schoolgirls, or inciting their captors to kill them.
Two weeks ago, counterinsurgency spokesman Mike Omeri said a multinational offensive that began at the end of January had driven Boko Haram from all major towns in the northeast and that Nigerian forces were concentrating on the Islamic militant stronghold in the Sambisa Forest. Omeri said the military believed that the Chibok girls might be held there.
In Chibok, community leader Pogu Bitrus said townspeople were desperately trying to verify the identity of the freed girls and women. He said the town had learned of the rescue through social media, not from the military.
“We are trying to verify if there are Chibok girls among them. We are working hard to verify. … All we know is this number have been rescued,” he said. His comments reflected a distrust of the military, which has published many misstatements about the girls and once even claimed to have rescued some, though that proved to be untrue.
Unconfirmed reports over the past year had indicated the girls were broken up into smaller groups and had been forced to convert to Islam and that some were “married” off to their captors. Some witnesses said they saw the girls being ferried by canoe across Lake Chad and into neighbouring Cameroon.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau published a video in which he threatened to sell the girls as slaves.
A Muslim leader who had tried to negotiate their release told the AP that at least three had died – from a snake bite, dysentery and malaria.
But the military has reported that none of the girls they found as they freed towns were the Chibok girls, indicating Boko Haram fighters might have held on to their most famous assets and taken them with them when they retreated to the Sambisa Forest, a national game reserve.
Unknown hundreds of people have been killed as the extremists retreated, according to reports from recaptured towns.
On Monday, a local government committee reported burying hundreds of skeletons of children, women and men believed killed by Boko Haram in Damasak, a town on the border with Niger.
“I know that there was a large-scale atrocity, but I cannot tell you the precise number of dead bodies,” Senator-elect Abubakar Kyari told reporters in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital 180 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Damasak.
Damasak was recaptured by troops from Chad and Niger last month and had been occupied by the Islamic extremists since November.