Nigeria troops have freed some 700 women and children from Boko Haram’s Sambisa forest stronghold over the past week, but uncertainty remained on Saturday over the fate of 219 girls seized from their school in Chibok last year in a kidnapping that sparked global outrage.
In the latest rescue, “234 women and children were rescued through the Kawuri and Konduga end of Sambisa forest on Thursday,” the defence headquarters said in a statement late Friday.
“They have been evacuated to join others at the place of ongoing screening,” it said, adding that the latest batch was “in addition to the previous individuals earlier rescued during the ongoing operation in the area.”
Around 500 women and children have already been freed by the military from the Islamists in the past few days.
The military said the “assault on the forest is continuing from various fronts and efforts are concentrated on rescuing hostages of civilians and destroying all terrorists camps and facilities in the forest.”
Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman said Saturday that the hostages were freed without much resistance.
“In the latest rescue operation there was no much resistance from the terrorists like the one encountered in the two previous operations,” he said.
“So, there were no casualties sustained among the rescued hostages this time. They are traumatised and some of them are sick,” he said.
Usman said the hostages would undergo screening to “determine their status, whether they are hostages or terrorist fighters.”
“Terrorists are known to use women in their terrorist acts and have used them as suicide bombers. Therefore there is need for thorough investigation to establish their true identities”.
The numbers of hostages freed underlined the scale of the tactic of mass abduction used by the militants, who according to Amnesty International have seized about 2,000 women and girls since the start of last year.
Female former hostages have described being subjected to forced labour and sexual and psychological abuse as well as sometimes having to fight on the frontline alongside the rebels.
The military had released a series of photographs purporting to show some of the rescued women and children in an undisclosed location, huddled on the ground watched over by soldiers.
It was still not clear if any of the 219 girls snatched in April 2014 from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok were among the freed hostages.
The mass kidnapping in Chibok prompted global outrage and forced President Goodluck Jonathan to accept international help in the search operation for the missing girls.
Jonathan has come under severe criticism for not doing enough to free the Chibok girls as well as end the six-year-old Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed some 13,000 lives and forced at least 1.5 million people to flee their homes.
Many analysts believe the protracted Boko Haram uprising was partly responsible for Jonathan’s defeat in the March 28 presidential election to former military ruler Mohammadu Buhari who has vowed to crush the insurgency.
Boko Haram which in local Hausa language means “Western education is forbidden” seeks to impose a hardline Islamic system in northeast Nigeria.