Haruna Umar / AP

Number of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls up to 276

Protesters decry weak government response as US offers help in locating students who have been missing for two weeks

The number of schoolgirls kidnapped and missing in Nigeria after a mass abduction more than two weeks ago has risen to 276, police said, as the Nigerian government continues its search to find the individuals, who were believed to have been taken by the nation's leading militant group.

Police said confusion over the number of schoolgirls who went missing from the northeastern state of Borno on April 14 was due to the fact that more students than usual were in school for exams. They were all between the ages of 15 and 18.

Parents of the missing students and hundreds of women protested this week in three cities against what they see as government inaction over the kidnappings.

“If 230 girls can go missing for this long and nobody knows how to find them, then something’s very wrong with our country,” said Tokumbo Adebanjo, 45, a travel agent and mother. “I feel the pain of those other mothers. Obviously the government are not doing their job.”

At least 53 young women escaped, Police Commissioner Tanko Lawan told a news conference Thursday night in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where the girls lived. Students who escaped said their captors identified themselves as members of Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group that is in rebellion against the government and hopes to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram literally means “Western education is sinful” and speaks to the group’s belief that Western influences have corrupted its country. The group has attacked and killed dozens of students, and prompted the closure of scores of schools in the country’s northeast.

Reports surfaced this week that some of the girls had been forced into marriage with members of Boko Haram.

The missing students are being paid about $12 to marry the fighters, Halite Aliyu of the Borno-Yobe People’s Forum told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The information about mass weddings came from villagers in the Sambisa Forest, a stronghold of the group, on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. 

“The latest reports are that they have been taken across the borders, some to Cameroon and Chad,” Aliyu said. The government said it had been searching the Sambisa Forest for the missing girls.

Nigerian herdsmen reported seeing the girls taken in boats onto an island in Lake Chad. Other reports said one of the Boko Haram rebels had called a friend in Borno to say he had just gotten married and was settling in Kolofata, Cameroon, about 9 miles from the Nigerian border.

“Some of them have been married off to insurgents. A medieval kind of slavery. You go and capture women and then sell them off,” Pogu Bitrus, community elder of Chibok, the town where the girls were abducted, told the BBC Hausa Service.

Boko Haram has been blamed for attacks that have killed thousands in the past year, including a bomb attack in the capital, Abuja, on Thursday, which killed at least 15 people.

The government’s inability to stop the violence has been an embarrassment for President Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan had announced a major security operation ahead of the World Economic Forum on Africa, scheduled for May 7–9 in Abuja.

The United States said Thursday that it would help Nigeria find the girls.

“We have been engaged with the Nigerian government in discussions on what we might do to help support their efforts to find and free these young women,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a daily briefing.

Harf did not elaborate on the type of assistance that was offered. “We know Boko Haram is active in the area, and we have worked very closely with the Nigerian government to build their capacity to fight this threat," Harf said.

The U.S. gave over $20 million in security assistance to Nigeria in fiscal year 2012.

With wire services. Al Jazeera's Yvonne Ndege contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.

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