Boko Haram has seized the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, where 276 girls were kidnapped more than six months ago.
The April 14 kidnapping in the impoverished town brought unprecedented global attention to the group's brutal five-year uprising. Heads of state and celebrities joined a viral social media campaign calling for the rescue of the mostly Christian schoolgirls, 219 of whom are still being held.
The military was not immediately available to comment on the developments in Chibok.
But given the town's symbolic significance, its fall will likely raise fresh doubt about Nigeria's ability to handle the Boko Haram threat.
"Chibok was taken by Boko Haram. They are in control," said Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose daughter and niece are among the hostages being held.
Mark and Ali Ndume, the senator for southern Borno — the state where Chibok is located, said the rebels attacked at about 4:00 p.m. local time on Thursday, destroying telecommunications towers and forcing residents to flee. Ndume said he had received calls from fleeing residents about the attack saying the town "was now under their [Boko Haram] control."
"There is no telephone service now in Chibok, which is why it took time before the reports reached me," he added.
In a recent video, Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau said he married the girls off, adding that they had converted to Islam. He also dismissed reports from Nigerian government officials that a cease-fire had been brokered or that peace talks were underway.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly promised to rescue the schoolgirls, most recently on Tuesday, when he launched his bid for a second term in office ahead of Feb. 14 polls.
In a July meeting in the capital Abuja with those affected by the kidnapping, Jonathan and top military brass also pledged to provide better security for the town.
But the violence in the northeast has intensified since, with Boko Haram reportedly seizing more than two dozens towns and Nigeria's security forces reportedly absent in many areas.
The attack on Chibok appeared to come after Boko Haram overran the towns of Hong and Gombi in neighboring Adamawa state, following the group's ouster from the commercial hub of Mubi.
At the July meeting with Jonathan, Chibok community leaders stressed that aside from the trauma of the mass kidnapping, locals remained in daily fear of attack and pleaded for more security. Many suspected the town’s fall was imminent.
Ayuba Chibok, whose niece is among the hostages, said at the time that people told the head of state that they "were tired of sleeping in the bushes."
Pogo Bitrus, a Chibok community leader, also confirmed the attack on Thursday and suggested Boko Haram may have had inside information about security in the town.
"The vigilantes use shotguns, and cartridges and have been short in supply, so [their] leader left yesterday for Maiduguri to procure more in the event of any attack," he said by telephone from Abuja.
"Boko Haram launched the attack while he was still in Maiduguri. He was due to come today, so it looks like they knew what was happening."
Bitrus said the vigilantes were preparing for a counter-attack and troops had been deployed from Damboa, 22 miles northwest by road.
"I can assure you they are going to retake Chibok," he added.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse