A major military operation is expected to begin near the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria, where the Nigerian government believes terrorists are holding some 276 young girls, two Nigerian newspapers reported Friday.
There are conflicting reports on how many girls were abducted from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria, but Borno State Police released new figures Friday, saying that at least 276 girls have been held for 17 days, the Vanguard newspaper reported.
Their captors are believed to be from the Boko Haram terror group, which is known to hideout in the Sambisa Forest.
Borno police say they believe 276 young women were snatched, while 53 others escaped, but it’s difficult to confirm numbers on the missing girls because they depend on parents claiming their daughters missing, and some may not have come forward yet.
Both the Vanguard and the Nigerian Tribune reported that four battalions from various national military divisions are expected to storm the Sambisa Forest, taking positions around all its access routes.
The government has also mobilized Nigerian Air Force fighter jets and police surveillance helicopters, which are waiting for the command to begin joint security operations to rescue the girls. By surrounding all roads to in and out of the forest, the military is hoping to trap the militants and prevent their escape.
Specially trained counter terrorist units, and land mine and anti-bomb experts will also help with rescue efforts. In addition to military troops, the government has set up medical personnel, facilities, and ambulances to attend to any injuries sustained in the mission.
A military source told the Vanguard the insurgents would not gain anything from hurting the girls during a raid. “The terrorists are afraid. They will be fighting to save their own lives. Many of them are cowards who cannot stand the army, that’s why they look for soft targets,” the unidentified source said.
“They know they won’t achieve anything injuring the girls. We feel they just wanted to get attention with the girls in their possession. We have strategies in place to get the girls and ensure their safety if indeed they are in the forest. The plan is to rescue them alive,” the source added.
The failure to rescue the girls is a massive embarrassment to Nigeria's government and the military, already confronted by mounting criticism over its apparent inability to curb the 5-year-old Islamic uprising despite having draconian powers through an 11-month state of emergency in three northeastern states covering one-sixth of the country.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan used May Day celebrations Thursday to reiterate his determination to bring the Boko Haram insurgency to an end, vowing that the abducted girls must be found and rescued.
“The government is constantly reviewing and upgrading mechanism to curb this mindless act and, together with the cooperation of the citizenry, we shall triumph over all these evils that want to debase our humanity or obstruct our progress as a nation,” President Jonathan said.
Jonathan, who is from the predominantly Christian south of Nigeria, has been accused of insensitivity to the plight of people in the north, who are mainly Muslims.
Parents say the girls—who range in age from 16 to 18-- are being sold into marriage to Boko Haram militants for 2,000 naira ($12), Halite Aliyu of the Borno-Yobe People's Forum told The Associated Press this week. She said the parents' information is coming from villagers in the Sambisa Forest.
Nationwide protests calling for the Nigerian government to take more immediate action to find and rescue the girls have increased in recent days.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.