By Haruna Umar And Michelle Faul Associated Press
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — More than 60 Nigerian girls and women abducted two weeks ago by Islamic extremists have managed to escape, officials said Monday, though more than 200 girls kidnapped in April still remain missing.
Nigerian security forces and federal officials have denied reports of a mass abduction June 22 from three villages in the northeastern state of Borno. But Chibok government chairman Pogu Bitrus said Monday he had verified that about 60 women and girls escaped last week by sending a representative to meet with some of the escapees and their families at a hospital in Lassa.
Civil patrol leader Abbas Gava in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, said he was told 63 women and girls escaped Friday while their captors were engaged in a major attack on a military barracks and police headquarters in the town of Damboa.
The Associated Press had originally quoted witnesses and a local official saying that 90 people including about 30 boys had been kidnapped from the three villages on June 22. But Bitrus said those who escaped said no males were abducted with them.
Boko Haram extremists have been waging an insurgency for five years in northern Nigeria, demanding the establishment of an Islamic state. More than 2,000 people have died so far this year in the Islamic uprising, compared to an estimated 3,600 total deaths in the previous four years.
The group drew international condemnation for the April 15 abductions of more than 300 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok in the northern state of Borno. Some 219 of those girls still are missing. The government and military failure to rescue them has attracted sharp criticism worldwide.
Boko Haram is demanding the release of detained fighters in exchange for the Chibok girls but Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly has refused to consider a prisoner swap.
On Monday, government spokesman Mike Omeri told reporters the government still does not know anything about the latest mass abduction and escapes. He also said investigators were progressing in the April Chibok kidnappings case.
“We are moving closer to finding them, at least we have identified a number of leads,” he told reporters.
That statement could not immediately be reconciled with one made weeks ago by Nigeria’s top-ranking soldier, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, who said the government knew where the girls are being held but feared that any military campaign to rescue them could endanger their lives.
Bitrus said attacks have increased around Chibok and that Boko Haram has taken over some villages and is threatening to capture others. A local group, the Kibaku Area Development Association, says 19 villages have been attacked since the April 15 abductions, with more than 229 people killed and about 100 seriously wounded.
The vast majority of the cases have had advance warning of the attacks — as happened in the Chibok kidnappings — yet the military had taken no action, the association said.
“Security and defense is mainly provided by the local vigilante and the police while the soldiers in Chibok sit by and watch villagers being helplessly massacred in their homes, farms and in places of worship,” the association said, demanding help from the United Nations.
Nigeria’s military has reported some successes in recent days. Soldiers killed at least 50 insurgents and lost five troops and their commander when they repulsed an attack by hundreds of Boko Haram fighters on a military base in Damboa, the Defense Ministry said Sunday.
It is impossible to verify reports from an area were Boko Haram is carrying out near-daily attacks.