Suspected Boko Haram militants have abducted more than 60 women and young girls, as well as 31 boys, in restive northeast Nigeria, a local official and a vigilante leader said on Tuesday.
The group was kidnapped in the last week during a Boko Haram attack on Kummabza village in the Damboa district of Borno state, which left at least 30 dead, according to residents who escaped the violence.
Nigerian security forces, which at first denied the kidnappings, are now looking into the alleged abductions.
An officer with Nigeria's Department of Security Services confirmed to VOA that abductions had occurred in the region. But the official, who did not want to be publicly identified, said the number of people missing had not been firmly established.
The latest abductions are certain to fuel public frustration over Abuja's inability to quell Boko Haram's five-year campaign to carve out an Islamist state in the mainly Muslim north.
Kummabza resident Aji Khalil said Tuesday the abductions took place over several days last weekend in an attack during which four villagers were killed. Khalil is a member of one of the vigilante groups that have had some success in repelling Boko Haram attacks with primitive weapons.
Khalil said suspected Boko Haram militants took about 60 married women and girls, some as young as 3, and 31 boys from the villages of Kummabza, Yaga and Dagu, all in Borno state, as reported by local Nigerian media.
"Four villagers who tried to escape were shot dead on the spot," Khalil said.
A senior officer in the Damboa local government, who asked for his name to be withheld as he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said: "Over 60 women were hijacked and forcefully taken away by the terrorists.
"The village was also destroyed. Some of the survivors who do not have means of transporting themselves, especially old women and men, trekked to Lassa, in the Askira-Uba local government area of Borno state, 25 kilometers (away)," the officer said.
Another resident, who fled to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and also requested anonymity, told the French news agency AFP: "Over 30 men were killed during the raid, which lasted for nearly four days. Most men fled for their lives.
"The attackers held the whole village hostage for the next three days," the resident said.
There was no way to safely and independently confirm the report from Kummabza, 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Maiduguri, headquarters of a military state of emergency that has failed to curtail near-daily attacks by Boko Haram fighters.
Major attacks blamed on Nigeria's Boko Haram
- July - Attacks prompt government crackdown in Bauchi and Maiduguri; 800 people killed
- December - Bombings in central Nigeria and church attacks in the northeast kill 86
June - Attack on a bar in Maiduguri kills 25
August - Suicide bomber kills 23 at U.N. building in Abuja
November - Bombings in Damaturu and Potiskum kill 65
December - Christmas Day bombings across Nigeria kill 39
- January -- Gun and bomb attacks in Kano up to 200
- February - Maiduguri market attack kills 30
- June - Suicide car bombings at three churches kill 21
- July - Attacks in Plateau state kill dozens, including two politicians at a funeral for the victims
- February - French family kidnapped in Cameroon, held hostage for two months
- April - Fighting with troops in Baga kills up to 200; residents say troops set deadly fires
- May - Attacks in Bama kill more than 50
- July - Gunmen kill 30 at a school in Yobe
- August - Gunmen kill 44 at a mosque outside Maiduguri
- September - Gunmen kill 40 students at a post-secondary school in Yobe
- December - Militants attack military installations in Maiduguri
- January - Militants kill 74 people and burn down a village in attacks in Borno and Adamawa
- February - Gunmen kill as many as 60 in attack on school in Yobe
- April - Militants abduct 276 schoolgirls
- June - Gunmen kill hundreds in massacres in Borno
The abductions are the latest to take place in Borno, which has been worst affected by the Islamist group's increasingly deadly, five-year insurgency.
Nigeria's government and military have attracted widespread criticism for their slow response to the abductions of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped April 15.
The Chibok abduction triggered a groundswell of outrage within Nigeria that spread overseas, leading to a social media campaign and international pressure on the government to act.
A number of countries, including the United States, are now involved in the search effort led by the Nigerian military.
Boko Haram has been demanding the release of detained members in exchange for the girls, but President Goodluck Jonathan has said he will not consider a swap.
Ryan Cummings, a South Africa-based security analyst for Red 24, said the latest kidnappings could be a way for Boko Haram to redirect international focus on the Chibok hostages.
"It seemed that with international and domestic focus on the issue waning, so has the Nigerian government's efforts in finding a resolution to the hostage situation," he told AFP by email.
"The latest abduction, if confirmed, may be an attempt by Boko Haram to both resume and expedite hostage negotiations," Cummings wrote.
A strategy to rescue the girls appears to have reached an impasse. Nigeria's military has said it knows where they are but fears their abductors would kill them if any military action is taken.
Politics have also bedeviled the issue, with many distracted by upcoming presidential elections in February 2015.
The first lady, Patience Jonathan, and some other supporters have claimed the reports of the April abductions of the schoolgirls were fabricated to discredit her husband's administration.
April 15 kidnapping
Last week, a presidential committee investigating the kidnappings stressed that they did in fact happen and clarified the number of students who have been kidnapped.
It said there were 395 students at the school, 119 escaped during the siege of the school, another 57 escaped in the first couple of days of their abduction, leaving 219 unaccounted for.
This year, the Boko Haram insurgents have embarked on a two-pronged strategy - bombing in cities and a scorched-earth policy in rural areas where they are devastating villages.
Nigeria's capital, Abuja, the central city of Jos and the northeastern state capital of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, all have been bombed.
Nigerian government spokesman Mike Omeri said to VOA that Nigerian law enforcement officers have stepped up security after a bomb blast at a college campus killed at least eight people and wounded 20 on Monday in Kano.
"Our government is concerned and has ordered all forces to redouble their efforts. And, I want to assure that for every one blast, two or three have been averted by the actions of the security services,” Omeri said.
Police said they had detained a suspect in the blast.
It was the third bomb blast in four months in Kano, Nigeria's second largest city.
Also on Saturday, the same day as the latest abductions, scores of Boko Haram fighters attacked four other villages, near Chibok from which the girls were kidnapped. Witnesses said at least 33 villagers were killed as well as six vigilantes and about two dozen Boko Haram fighters.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.