Nigeria on Tuesday said it has rescued nearly 300 girls and women from a Boko Haram stronghold in the country’s northeast, but it remained unclear if any were among the missing schoolgirls the Islamist group kidnapped last year from the town of Chibok. Two military spokesmen have differed over the possibility of the rescued girls being from Chibok.
The military announced on Twitter that it had rescued 200 girls and 93 women from three camps in the Sambisa forest but couldn’t confirm whether any girls in the group were from Chibok.
The forest is thought to be one of Boko Haram’s last strongholds in northeastern Nigeria, and the military earlier this month announced it would be storming Sambisa as part of its campaign against the radical Islamist group.
At its peak, Boko Haram controlled parts of the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and carried out kidnappings in towns and villages in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon. But last year’s raid on Chibok was the most notorious episode.
In that instance, militants stormed the northeastern town in the dead of night, and made off with dormitories full of schoolgirls. Some escaped, but 219 remain missing.
Military spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade says the military is still fighting for control of the forest.
“The mission is still continuing, because we have cleared all the identified camps. We have camps that we have identified in the intelligence that must be taken out," said Olukolade.
Pogo Bitrus is the chairman of Chibok Elders Forum and a representative of the families of the missing girls from Chibok. He said one of the families he spoke with had been cautiously optimistic about the news.
“When we’re able to ascertain that some of them are Chibok girls, then we can start rejoicing," said Bitrus.
The families have reason to be skeptical. There have been several false alarms about the girls’ release. Right after the kidnapping, the military erroneously said most had been rescued. Last September, the military said a group had been found, only to backtrack hours later.
In New York, the United Nations special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, said the rescue of 200 girls, wherever they come from, is welcome news.