MAIDUGURI/ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria’s military said on Wednesday its forces had freed most of the more than 100 teenage schoolgirls abducted by Islamist Boko Haram militants and were continuing the search for eight students still missing.
In a brief statement sent to media, spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade said one of the “terrorists” involved in Monday’s abduction of female students from the Chibok government secondary school in northeast Borno state had been captured.
“With this development, the Principal of the school has confirmed that only eight of the students are still missing,” Olukolade said, adding that the rescue operation was continuing.
He did not specify exactly how many of the girls snatched from their school by the anti-government Islamist movement had been rescued or give details of how or where they were freed.
An earlier statement from the military had put the total number of students kidnapped at Chibok at 129, and said pursuing troops were “closing in” on the abductors’ hideout.
A spokesman for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuben Aabati, told Reuters he had been informed some of the kidnapped girls had been freed but could not specify how many.
The mass abduction of schoolgirls aged between 15 and 18 has shocked Nigeria and showed how the five-year-old Boko Haram insurgency has brought lawlessness to swathes of the arid, poor northeast, killing hundreds of people in recent months.
It occurred the same day a bomb blast, also blamed on Boko Haram, killed 75 people on the edge of the capital Abuja, stirring fears of violence spreading from the north of Africa’s No. 1 oil producer and most populous nation.
Abati said Jonathan, who had ordered the military to secure the release of all the missing girls, had called a meeting of his National Security Council for Thursday to review the security situation in the country.
With elections due in February, Jonathan is under intense pressure to contain the Boko Haram insurgency and additional communal sectarian violence in Nigeria’s center-north which badly tarnish the West African state’s newly acquired status as the largest economy on the continent.
Earlier, officials said the Boko Haram raiders had duped the schoolgirls into thinking they were soldiers come to protect them before abducting them. A few of the girls later escaped.
“When we saw these gunmen, we thought they were soldiers, they told all of us to come and walk to the gates, we followed their instructions,” 18-year-old Godiya Isaiah, who managed to flee from her abductors, told Reuters.
But when the armed men started ransacking the school stores and set fire to the building, the terrified girls being herded at gunpoint into vehicles realized they were being kidnapped.
“We were crying,” Isaiah said, recounting how she later jumped from a truck and ran away to hide in the bush. Other girls were packed into a bus and some pick-ups.
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language broadly means “Western education is sinful”, has previously attacked several schools as symbols of secular authority, killing pupils and teachers, as well as Christian churches and Nigerian state targets such as police, army and government offices.
Chibok is not far from a rugged area of forest, hills and caves where military officials say Boko Haram has camps near the border with neighboring Cameroon. They have abducted girls in the past to be sex slaves for the fighters and to do camp work.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction or for the rush hour bomb blast on Abuja’s outskirts, which put the capital on alert around three weeks before the central city was due to host a high-profile World Economic Forum on Africa.
But President Jonathan has pointed the finger of suspicion for the bombing at Boko Haram, bringing home to Nigerians in the centrally-located capital that the Islamist insurrection ravaging poorer states hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the northeast could also strike much closer to home.
On Tuesday afternoon, a bomb scare at the National Assembly, caused lawmakers and bureaucrats to hurriedly abandon their offices. Banks also closed before officials gave the all-clear.
Ordinary citizens, and delegates to a conference discussing national unity in a country split between a mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, all called on the government to do more to end violence and improve security across the territory.
“We are left in the hands of God,” said Emeka Obi, who works at a business centre in the capital.
Some delegates to the conference called for closure of Nigeria’s borders with its Sahel neighbors Niger and Chad and also with Cameroon, reflecting fears that Boko Haram had bases there and also ties with al Qaeda-linked Saharan jihadists.
There are also suspicions some local politicians may be manipulating the violence to try to serve their own interests.
“We must advise politicians to take politics out of this entirely. There are external sponsors to this cannibalism we are witnessing,” said Kunle Olajide, a delegate to the conference.
Nigerian authorities plan to deploy over 6,000 police and soldiers to protect participants in the May 7-9 “African Davos” World Economic Forum which draws regional heads of state and business leaders in a mirror of the Davos, Switzerland event.
Additional reporting by Chijioke Ohuocha in Lagos and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Tom Heneghan and