Suspected Boko Haram militants have abducted more than 60 women and girls, some as young as three, in the latest kidnappings in northeast Nigeria and over two months since more than 200 schoolgirls were seized.
Analysts said the kidnapping, which happened during a raid on Kummabza village in the Damboa district of Borno state, could be an attempt by the Islamist group to refocus attention on its demands for the release of militant fighters.
Boko Haram has indicated that it would be willing to release the 219 schoolgirls that it has held hostage since April 14 in exchange for the freedom of its brothers in arms currently held in Nigerian jails.
Nigeria initially refused to sanction any deal but efforts have since been made to open talks with the group, with a possible prisoner swap part of discussions.
The military in Abuja said in a tweet late on Monday it could not confirm the latest abductions and spokesmen were not immediately available for comment when contacted on Tuesday.
But a senior officer in the Damboa local government, who asked for his name to be withheld as he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said: “Over 60 women were hijacked and forcefully taken away by the terrorists.
“The village was also destroyed,” he said, adding that locals had fled their homes to other parts of Borno and across the state border into Adamawa.
“Among those abducted are children between the ages of three and 12,” he added.
Aji Khalil, a local vigilante leader, said: “Over 60 women were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists. They were forcefully taken away by Boko Haram terrorists.
“Four villagers who tried to escape were shot dead on the spot.”
Damboa local government officials said they were afraid to speak out because of the controversy surrounding the Chibok abductions, with Nigeria’s government coming under heavy criticism for its slow response.
Another resident, who fled to the Borno state capital Maiduguri and also requested anonymity, said that more than 30 men were killed during the raid, which began last Thursday.
“The attackers held the whole village hostage for the next three days,” he added.
News of the abductions came as locals in three villages of the Askira Uba district, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) to the south, said they had been attacked over the weekend.
Resident Emos Ali said “many” people had died, although no official toll was available.
A bomb blast blamed on Boko Haram killed at least eight at a public health college in the northern city of Kano on Monday.
The newly appointed religious leader the Emir of Kano, former central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, said the attack had “traumatised every one of us” after visiting the wounded in hospital.
“We pray to Allah to bring an end to this security situation and may Allah not allow a repeat of this,” he said in his first comments on Boko Haram violence since his appointment.
Boko Haram, which has been waging a deadly insurgency since 2009, used the kidnapping of women and young girls as a tactic even before the mass abduction of the schoolgirls in the remote Borno town of Chibok.
The Chibok abduction triggered a groundswell of outrage within Nigeria that spread overseas, leading to a social media campaign and international pressure on the government to act.
Borno senator Ali Ndume confirmed the latest abductions and said Boko Haram “took advantage” as people returned to the area to check on their farms during flooding when there was no military presence in the area.
“Boko Haram selected young males and females” as hostages, and “left the elderly”, he said, amid local media reports that some 30 young boys may have also been taken.
Abductions have been a regular occurrence since the Chibok kidnapping, he added.
Ryan Cummings, a South Africa-based security analyst for Red 24, said the latest kidnappings could be a way for Boko Haram to redirect international focus on the Chibok hostages.
“It seemed that with international and domestic focus on the issue waning, so has the Nigerian government’s efforts in finding a resolution to the hostage situation,” said Cummings.
“It was reported on May 26 that the Nigerian government had rescinded on a hostage exchange agreement with the sect and that negotiations subsequently had stalled.
“The latest abduction, if confirmed, may be an attempt by Boko Haram to both resume and expedite hostage negotiations.”