LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria’s military rescued 234 more girls and women from a Boko Haram forest stronghold in the country’s northeast, an announcement on social media said Saturday.It brings the number of females declared rescued this week to more than 677.
“FLASH: Another set of 234 women and children were rescued through the Kawuri and Konduga end of the (hash)Sambisa Forest on Thursday,” said a message on the official Twitter account of the Nigerian Defence Headquarters posted early Saturday.
It comes as the army deployed ground troops following weeks of punishing air raids on the Sambisa Forest.
President Goodluck Jonathan, whose term ends this month, said Thursday that the forest is the last holdout of the Islamic militants and he pledged to “hand over a Nigeria completely free of terrorist strongholds.”
It is not known how many girls, women, boys and men Boko Haram has kidnapped during its nearly 6-year-old rebellion. Nigeria’s army has reported rescuing only females.
The Associated Press has reported that some women shot at their rescuers and were killed, with Boko Haram using them as an armed human shield for its main fighting force.
Boko Haram continues to attack in isolated places. The governor of a province in neighboring Niger has ordered residents of Lake Chad to evacuate by Monday when a government official said troops will flush the militants from hideouts.
A Boko Haram attack on Karamga island in Lake Chad last weekend left 156 militants, 46 Niger soldiers and 28 civilians dead, Niger’s government said.
As the insurgency spilled over Nigeria’s borders, a multinational force consisting of Nigeria and its neighbors deployed at the end of January and has retaken towns and villages where Boko Haram had declared an Islamic caliphate. Nigeria’s military, which had largely failed to curb the rebellion, has been reinvigorated by new weapons including helicopter gunships.
Nigeria’s military says it has flown in medical and intelligence teams to screen the rescued girls and women and find out their identities. Army spokesman Col. Sani Usman said most are traumatized.
It is still not known if any are the students kidnapped from a boarding school in Chibok town a year ago – a mass kidnapping that outraged much of the world.
A counselor who has helped rehabilitate other women held captive by Boko Haram told the AP that some identify with the insurgents’ extremist ideology after months of captivity and forced marriages. It remains unclear if some of the women had willingly joined Boko Haram, or are family members of fighters.
Boko Haram began kidnapping civilians after Nigeria’s military detained the wives and children of several militant leaders. They were freed amid failed peace negotiations in 2013.
Some of the freed women and girls are pregnant, Muhammad Gavi, a spokesman for a self-defense group that fights Boko Haram, said citing information from group members who have seen the females.
Amnesty International called on authorities “to ensure that the trauma of those `rescued’ is not exacerbated by lengthy security screening in detention.”
The Nigerian military Friday released photos of about 20 subdued-looking children and women they said were taken between Tuesday and Thursday in the Sambisa Forest. They look generally healthy but at least one child looks emaciated and some children have the orange-colored hair signaling severe malnutrition.
A young military medic with blue rubber gloves and a surgical mask appears to be checking several children.
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.