Parents demand answers on missing girls

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AFP

Nigeria's director of defence information, Brigadier-General Chris Olukolade. Picture: Pius Utomi Ekpei

Abuja - Anxious Nigerian parents demanded answers on Thursday about the fate of their daughters after the military claimed that 121 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamic extremists were now free.

Defence spokesman Chris Olukolade had initially said that 129 girls were abducted by gunmen in the Chibok area of the northeastern Borno state late Monday.

The mass kidnap - which has sparked global outrage - came just hours after the deadliest attack ever in the capital Abuja, where a bomb blast also blamed on Boko Haram killed at least 75 people.

Olukolade said that all but eight of the girls were safe, citing information provided by the school's principal, but families contested the claim.

The defence spokesman's claim has been widely disputed, including by parents who voiced anger at the allegedly false information.

“For the military (which) is supposed to find and rescue our children to be spreading such lies shows that they have no intention of rescuing our girls,” said Lawan Zanna, a Chibok resident whose daughter was among those taken.

“It is the highest form of insult,” he added. “They said our girls have been freed... Bring them to us because they are yet to be reunited with us.”

Boko Haram has repeatedly attacked schools and universities during an extremist uprising that has killed thousands since 2009.

The group's name loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.”

Students have been massacred in their dormitories and bombs set off at university campuses, but the mass abduction specifically targeting girls is unprecedented.

Borno's governor Kashim Shettima said on Wednesday that only 14 of the girls had escaped their captors and offered a reward to anyone with information that led to the return of the others.

After the military claimed that most had been freed, a senior security source who asked that his name be withheld told AFP that more than 100 remained in captivity.

Parents in Chibok swarmed the home of the area's tribal chief on Wednesday, demanding clarification after the military claim, residents said.

“The feeling that the military was in pursuit of the kidnappers kept hope alive among parents,” said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The dubious report that most of the children were now safe “has shattered that hope”, he said.

Gunmen stormed Chibok late Monday and torched several buildings before opening fire on security forces guarding the Government Girls Secondary School.

They killed two guards, then forced their way inside, herding the girls on to trucks before driving away.

Three of the girls who escaped said they were taken to the Sambisa Forest part of Borno, an area where Boko Haram is known to have well-fortified camps.

The school attack and Monday's bombing at a packed bus station on the outskirts of Abuja have underscored the serious threat the Islamists pose to Africa's most populous country and top economy.

President Goodluck Jonathan has summoned his security chiefs for a meeting on Thursday to review the unrest.

In a rare move, he also invited all of Nigeria's 36 state governments to join a second security meeting later in the day.

Jonathan, who is grappling with an unprecedented crisis in his own party, has faced mounting criticism over his failure to contain the Boko Haram threat.

The insurgency has cost more than 1 500 lives already this year, the deadliest stretch in Boko Haram's five-year uprising, which the group says is aimed at creating a strict Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.

Boko Haram's latest school attack sparked outrage and condemnation from Britain, the United States and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Borno's governor Shettima, visibly shaken, voiced particular outrage at the violence targeting teenage girls.

“In Islam, women and children are spared during war,” Shettima said. - AFP


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