Quentin Leboucher/AFP/Getty Images

Nigerian military searching forest for abducted schoolgirls

At least 44 of the 129 girls have been recovered or released, but scores more are still missing

At least 44 of the 129 schoolgirls abducted in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok have been released and have reunited with their parents according to the Borno state education commissioner.

Education Commissioner Muso Inowu Kubo confirmed the release to Al Jazeera on Friday, not providing further details.

The schoolgirls, aged between 15 and 18, were kidnapped on Monday in a mass abduction by fighters belonging to Boko Haram, a group blamed for widespread attacks that have left hundreds dead in recent months.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that the military was searching for more the 85 girls still missing in the Sambisa Forest, which is known to be a hiding place for Boko Haram fighters.

The military had said Wednesday that the military had rescued all but eight of the schoolgirls abducted by rebels suspected to be from the Boko Haram armed group, but quickly retracted that statement.

The military is now searching for the remaining girls.

Monday's mass abduction of the schoolgirls shocked Nigeria, a nation growing increasingly inured to tales of horror from its bloody insurgency in the northeast.

The claim about the rescue and subsequent retraction has left many parents in the dark.

"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."

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 Boko Haram and because it has been pounded by near-daily aerial bombardments by the air force.

The raid on the Chibok school showed how the Boko Haram insurgency, in its fifth year, has brought lawlessness to swaths of the semi-arid, poor region. Hundreds of people have been killed in violence in recent months.

"So far, we have seen 20 students, many of whom escaped from the abductors. The principal of the school has so far received [them]," Borno state Education Commissioner Inuwa Kubo told Reuters by telephone from the school.

"Many of the parents are still waiting in pain."

A statement late Thursday from Defense Headquarters spokesman Chris Olukolade concurred with this.

"In the light of the denial by the principal of the school, the Defence Headquarters wishes to defer to the school principal and governor's statement on the number of students still missing and retract (the) ... earlier statement while the search continues," Olukolade said in the press release.

Kubo had said the girls who were free had escaped, rather than been rescued by Nigerian troops. Olukolade did not comment on that claim in his statement.

Kubo said he was not sure the exact number abducted, but said they were less than 129.

An uncle of two teenagers snatched by Boko Haram militants from the government secondary school at Chibok in Borno state said the search was still going on.

"Two of my nieces, Laraba and Hauwa, are still missing, ... 20 other girls from our village are missing," Isaiah Rabo told Reuters by phone from Chibok. His daughter was among those who escaped from the abductors.

Boko Haram is seen as the gravest security threat to Africa's biggest economy and top oil producer.

Kidnapping girls is a tactic Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," have used repeatedly since early last year. It has echoes of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, which abducted thousands of school-aged girls across central Africa to use as forced "wives" for their commanders.

The kidnapping occurred the same day a bomb blast, also blamed on Boko Haram, killed 75 people on the edge of the capital Abuja, stirring fears of violence spreading from the north of Africa's most populous nation.

President Goodluck Jonathan met his National Security Council on Thursday to review the security situation, although the results of that meeting were not made public.

Students have been massacred in their dormitories and bombs set off at university campuses, but the mass abduction specifically targeting girls is unprecedented.

Borno's governor has offered a 50 million naira ($300,000) reward to anyone with information leading to the return of the schoolgirls.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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