MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Parents of girls abducted by Islamist militants were searching for their daughters in a remote forest, they told the state governor on Monday, adding that 234 were still missing, a much higher figure than authorities said had been kidnapped.
Official figures put the number of abducted girls at 129 and by Saturday afternoon Borno state governor Kassim Shettima said 77 were still unaccounted for, while the other 52 had returned.
Monday's mass abduction of teenage schoolgirls by Boko Haram from Chibok school, which the governor visited on Monday, shocked Nigeria, a nation long used to hearing about brutal attacks on civilians in the northeast.
It also underlined how powerless the military has become at protecting civilians in the areas of Africa's most populous country plagued by the insurgency, despite a state of emergency nearly a year old that was meant to destroy it.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful", say they are fighting for a breakaway Islamic state in northern Nigeria, although they have increasingly targeted civilians instead of just security forces over the past year.
Parent Shettima Haruna said several parents had taken motorcycles into the Sambisa forest, a known Boko Haram hideout near the school where it is believed the girls were taken.
"We met some men in the Sambisa bush; they told us the Boko Haram camp is still inside and far. They said we may not come out alive ... and we then returned beaten by rains," he said.
"We came back to count all our children and we discovered 234 girls are still missing," he added, standing next to the school, large parts of which were reduced to ash by the attack.
The governor and his entourage did not comment on the discrepancy in the figures, which it was not possible to independently check.
Folly Teika, 53, whose two girls Aisha and Hima were among those abducted, said after days of searching she came across people in a village called Bale.
"They said they saw a lot of girls that same Tuesday morning fetching water from a stream and leaving ... They told us they were certain that girls are still close by, but they advised strongly not to go into that direction because we weren't armed," she told Reuters by telephone.
Boko Haram's five-year-old struggle is now seen as the main security threat to Africa's leading energy producer, killing thousands, but attacks on civilians have worsened and become more gruesome this year. School raids seem targeted at deterring parents from giving their children modern education.
"All we want from the government is to help us bring our children back," said father Pogu Yaga, 50, bursting into tears.
The kidnapping occurred the same day a bomb blast, which Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau has since claimed responsibility for, killed 75 people on the edge of the capital Abuja.
(Reporting by Lanre Ola; Additional reporting by Isaac Abrak; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Eric Walsh)