MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Able-bodied men from the Nigerian town of Chibok have taken to the dangerous Sambisa Forest to search for more than 100 abducted girls and young women whom the military claimed to have freed from their Islamic extremist kidnappers, an education official said Thursday.
Six more have managed to escape their captors on their own, bringing to 20 the number that are free, the education commissioner of Borno state, Musa Inuwo Kubo, told reporters.
He spoke at a news conference where parents of the kidnapped students expressed their anguish over a Defense Ministry statement claiming to have freed all but eight of the students by Wednesday night.
"The military had really gladdened our hearts. But now we are left in confusion," said Lydia Ibrahim, whose three cousins are among the kidnapped. "These girls are innocent, we plead that government should do all that they can to help us."
The Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, had said in a statement late Wednesday that the principal of the school from which the young women were abducted had confirmed that all but eight were freed.
But the principal, Asabe Kwambura, denied that to The Associated Press and flatly contradicted Olukolade, saying "Up till now we are still waiting and praying for the safe return of the students ... the security people, especially the vigilantes and the well-meaning volunteers of Gwoza are still out searching for them. The military people, too, are in the bush searching."
She said only 14 of those kidnapped by gunmen before dawn Tuesday have returned to Chibok — four who jumped from the back of a truck soon after the abductions and 10 who escaped into the bush when their abductors asked them to cook a meal.
Inuwo said six more girls have returned home — two found wandering in the forest by soldiers and four who had made their way to a village near where they were being held.
Olukolade, the defense spokesman, Thursday night retracted his statement, which he said had been based on a field report indicating "a major breakthrough." He added, "There is indeed no reason to play politics with the precious lives of the students. The number of those still missing is not the issue now as the life of every Nigerian is very precious."
A town official said people angry at the military's false statement and failure to find the abductees are taking the initiative and searching the forest themselves — dangerous because it is a known hiding place for militants of the Boko Haram extremist network and because it has been pounded by near-daily aerial bombardments by the air force.
Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima offered a reward of $300,000 for information leading to the release of the students, aged between 16 and 18.
Shettima told the AP that he wanted to visit Chibok but the security forces told him it was too dangerous, even under military escort, for him to make the 130-kilometer (80-mile) drive from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and birthplace of Boko Haram.
Kwambura said the students were kidnapped because of a terrible mistake. She said the insurgents arrived after midnight at her Government Girls' Secondary School wearing military fatigues and posing as soldiers — a common tactic used by the insurgents. She said she believed them when they told her that they needed to move the girls for their own safety. So she allowed the extremists posing as soldiers to load the students on to the back of a truck.
It was only as the armed men were leaving, and started shooting, that she realized her mistake. The militants killed a soldier and a police officer guarding the school, she said.
The government closed all schools in Borno three weeks ago because of frequent attacks in which hundreds of students have been killed in the past year. The girls who were kidnapped had been recalled so they could write their final exams.
The extremists have been using abducted students as cooks, sex slaves and porters.
Boko Haram has been on a rampage this week, blamed for four attacks in three days that started with an explosion at a busy bus station during the Monday morning rush hour in Abuja, the capital, which killed at least 75 people.
Two attacks in northeastern villages killed 20 people Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
More than 1,500 people have been killed this year, compared to an estimated 3,600 between 2010 and 2013.
The attacks undermine government and military claims that security forces are containing the Islamic militants' uprising that began five years ago in the extreme northeast of the country.
Boko Haram — the nickname means "Western education is sinful" — has vowed to force an Islamic state on Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of some 170 million people divided almost equally between mainly Muslims in the north and a predominantly Christian south. They say Shariah law will halt corruption that is endemic.
Michelle Faul reported from Lagos. Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja.