Nigeria’s military on Tuesday claimed the rescue of 200 girls and 93 women from a notorious Boko Haram stronghold, but said there was no confirmation the hostages were 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, referring to the area in northeast Borno state where the Islamists have bases.
“It is not yet confirmed if the girls are the Chibok girls. The freed persons are now being screened & profiled,” he added.
Olukolade gave no indication as to how long it would take for the hostages to be identified.
Boko Haram claimed the abduction of 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, also in Borno, on April 14 of 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 in Borno said there were indications the girls had been taken to the Sambisa Forest.
But defence officials and experts agreed that they were likely separated over the last 13 months, casting significant doubt on the possibility that they were being held together as a group.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, vowed to “marry them off” or sell them as “slaves.”
Ayuba Alamson-Chibok, a teacher who has campaigned on the girls’ behalf, told AFP that he doubts those reportedly rescued from Sambisa on Tuesday were from Chibok.
“I believe it is not possible for our girls to be in one place,” said Alamson-Chibok, whose two cousins are among the hostages.
Nigeria’s military has in the past released misleading and inaccurate information concerning the Chibok girls, including claims last year that Boko Haram had agreed to their release.
The Islamists have been blamed for hundreds of other kidnappings, especially targeting women and girls across northeast 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 to the drama, with outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan accused of indifference and of trying to downplay the severity of the kidnapping.
Celebrities and prominent personalities including US First Lady Michelle Obama joined the Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls that attracted supporters worldwide.
– ‘Brave sisters’ –
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.
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 jihadist group.
The group’s six-year insurgency in northeast Nigeria has left at least 15,000 dead and some 1.5 million people homeless.
The Nigerian military has in recent months claimed a string of successes against Boko Haram after launching a joint offensive against the militants with the help of soldiers from Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
A series of towns previously under Islamist control have been retaken, and Nigeria’s military has vowed to flush the insurgents out of its bases in Sambisa in the coming weeks.
But a string of recent attacks underlined the continuing risks posed by the Islamists.
Niger on Tuesday said 46 of its soldiers and 28 civilians were killed in a Boko Haram attack on an island on Lake Chad on Saturday. The assault came after 21 people were shot dead in northeast Nigeria’s Yobe state on Friday, in an attack also blamed on Boko Haram.