Nigerian forces have freed most of 100-plus teenage schoolgirls abducted by rebels suspected to be from armed group Boko Haram, and were continuing the search for the few students still missing, according to military officials.
In a brief statement sent to media, spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade said one of the "terrorists" involved in Monday's abduction of female students from the Chibok government secondary school in northeast Borno state had been captured. The number kidnapped might be as high as 129.
"With this development, the principal of the school has confirmed that only eight of the students are still missing," Olukolade said, adding that the rescue operation was continuing but not elaborating on how the government had rescued the students.
Olukolade would not specify how many had been rescued or give details on how or where they were freed.
But the school's principal said she could not confirm the military report that more than 100 female students kidnapped were free. Asabe Kwambura told the Associated Press that only 14 of the 129 abducted students had returned to Chibok town, with the rest still missing.
The mass abduction of schoolgirls aged between 15 and 18 has shocked Nigeria and highlighted how the Boko Haram insurgency has brought lawlessness to swaths of the arid, poor northeast, killing hundreds of people in recent months.
The school is not far from a rugged area of forest, hills and caves where military officials say Boko Haram has camps near the border with neighboring Cameroon. They have abducted girls in the past to be sex slaves for the fighters and to do camp work.
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language broadly means "Western education is sinful,” has previously attacked several schools as symbols of secular authority, killing pupils and teachers, as well as Christian churches and Nigerian state targets such as police, army and government offices.
The group seeks to establish a state ruled by Islamic law in the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria.
Earlier, officials said the Boko Haram raiders had duped the schoolgirls into thinking they were soldiers come to protect them before abducting them. A few of the girls later escaped.
"When we saw these gunmen, we thought they were soldiers, they told all of us to come and walk to the gates, we followed their instructions," 18-year-old Godiya Isaiah, who managed to flee from her abductors, told Reuters.
But when the armed men started ransacking the school stores and set fire to the building, the terrified girls being herded at gunpoint into vehicles realized they were being kidnapped.
"We were crying," Isaiah said, recounting how she later jumped from a truck and ran away to hide in the bush. Other girls were packed into a bus and some pick-ups.
The kidnappings occurred the same day a bomb blast killed 75 people on the edge of the capital Abuja, stirring fears of violence spreading from the north of Africa's chief oil producer and most populous nation.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction or for the rush hour bomb blast on Abuja's outskirts, which put the capital on alert around three weeks before the central city was due to host a high-profile World Economic Forum on Africa.
But President Goodluck Jonathan has pointed the finger of suspicion for the bombing at Boko Haram, bringing home to Nigerians in the centrally-located capital that the insurrection ravaging poorer states hundreds of miles to the northeast could also strike much closer to home.
According to his spokesman, Jonathan, who had ordered the military to secure the release of all the missing girls, had called a meeting of his National Security Council for Thursday to review the security situation in the country.
With elections due in February, Jonathan is under intense pressure to contain the Boko Haram group and curb communal sectarian violence in Nigeria's center-north, which badly tarnish the West African state's newly acquired status as the largest economy on the continent.
Al Jazeera and Reuters
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