LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian military operations against Boko Haram are focusing on a northeastern forest where officials believe more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped a year ago are being held, the government's counter-insurgency spokesman said Wednesday.
Parents and community leaders from Chibok town dismissed the statement as political grandstanding.
The outgoing government of President Goodluck Jonathan "remains resolute in finding and returning them (the girls) to their homes," said Mike Omeri of the National Information Centre at a news conference in Abuja, the capital.
A military offensive has driven the Boko Haram Islamic extremists out of all strongholds except the northeastern forest, said Omeri.
"Presently, the military is moving into the Sambisa Forest," he said, "Our intelligence indicates that the present military operation is focused in the area where the girls are believed to be held."
His statements are a far cry from the uncertainty about the girls' fate expressed Tuesday by President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, who pledged to be honest with the parents. Speaking on the first anniversary of the kidnapping, Buhari said he would not make any promises to find the girls because their whereabouts remain unknown.
Parents and community leaders told The Associated Press that their information indicates the girls were moved from Sambisa within weeks of their abduction. They insisted on anonymity for fear of attack by Boko Haram.
Community leader Pogu Bitrus said the last reported sighting of the girls was last year in the Alagarno forest. Nigeria's military said it drove Boko Haram from Alagarno last week, but added there were no signs of the girls.
"They are using our girls for political purposes," Bitrus said.
Parents met with a representative of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who promised work would start Monday by soldiers to rebuild the school burned by Boko Haram, community leader Dr. Idrisa Danladi told the AP.
Jonathan's government initially denied the mass abduction and then made some misleading statements about the girls, as did the military. Both have faced international outrage for failing to rescue the girls snatched from a school in Chibok on April 14-15. Dozens escaped but 219 remain missing.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Buhari on Wednesday to express U.S. support for efforts to rescue all hostages held by Boko Haram, in efforts to counter the Islamic extremist group and to protect civilians, according to a White House statement.