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Maiduguri, Nigeria - Desperate Nigerian parents pleaded on Wednesday for an end to their "nightmare" after Boko Haram Islamists kidnapped more than 100 girls from a secondary school in the embattled north-east.
The mass abduction by heavily armed insurgents from the Chibok area of Borno state late Monday came just hours after a bomb ripped through a packed bus station on the outskirts of Abuja, killing 75 people, the deadliest attack ever in the capital.
The bombing was also blamed on Boko Haram, a group whose five-year extremist uprising has shaken Africa's most populous country and top economy.
"They took away my daughter," said one woman from Chibok, who like several parents requested anonymity given the uncertain fate of the children.
"I don't know what to do," she told AFP, urging the government to find the kidnappers. "They should not allow our daughters' dreams to be shattered by these murderers."
A father who said his daughter was taken in the attack described the ordeal as a "nightmare."
"The whole town is in mourning," he said from Chibok.
The gunmen stormed the Government Girls Secondary School after sundown on Monday, torching several buildings before opening fire on security forces guarding the school.
Boko Haram, whose named means "Western education is forbidden", has repeatedly attacked schools and universities in an insurgency that has killed thousands of people since 2009.
Intensifying violence in the group's northeastern stronghold has forced school closures across the region.
It is not yet clear why the Chibok school was open, but Emmanuel Sam, an education officer based in the area said the girls had been scheduled to write exams this week and that school was full when the attackers arrived.
Witnesses said the gunmen killed a police officer and soldier in the shootout and ultimately forced their way into the school.
They then forced the girls outside and loaded them on to trucks and drove off into the bush of the remote region, notorious for its terrible roads.
A senior security source, who said than more than 100 girls were taken, told AFP the troops had tracked the tyre marks of the convoy and were pursuing the Islamists.
Senator Ali Ndume, who represents the region, said the pursuit included soldiers backed by members of a local vigilante force which formed last year to help fight Boko Haram.
"They are now combing the forest to rescue the school girls," he told AFP. "They are being aided by surveillance helicopters," he said, but noted the difficulty of the search in a vast forest that extends to neighbouring Cameroon.
Nigeria has said its fight against Boko Haram has been hindered by the porous borders it shares with its northeastern neighbours, including Cameroon and Niger, with the Islamists evading pursuit by slipping through unmanned posts.
Some of the girls escaped by jumping off a truck when the gunmen became distracted by a vehicle that had broken down.
"They tried to fix it," one of the girls who fled told AFP by phone from Chibok on condition of anonymity. "It was at this moment that some of us jumped out of the vehicles and ran into the bush."
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and the military have sought to portray Boko Haram as being on the defensive and rapidly losing strength thanks to a massive offensive in the north-east launched last May.
But a major bombing just a few kilometres from the seat of government in Abuja and another attack targeting defenceless students has underscored the serious threat the Islamists continue to pose.
The military has so far refused to comment on the abductions, even as the tragedy dominates the front pages of most leading newspapers, and the status of the rescue operation remains unclear.
"We have turned to prayers," said the mother whose daughter was taken. "(It) is all we have." - Sapa-AFP