Nigeria's government on Wednesday denied claims that Boko Haram militants abducted 60 women and children from the country's restive northeast, saying there was no evidence despite eyewitness testimony.
Government spokesman Mike Omeri told a news conference in Abuja that there was "nothing on the ground to prove any act of abduction, as reported".
A local government official in the Damboa district of Borno, a vigilante leader and an area senator on Monday all said the women and girls, some as young as three, were taken during a raid on Kummabza village in the last week.
Nigeria's military initially did not confirm or deny the abduction and Borno governor Kashim Shettima on Monday ordered an urgent probe, highlighting a recent reported abduction of at least 20 nomadic women from the same area.
Shettima said he was cautious because of subsequent counter-claims that the women had in fact moved elsewhere in the state as part of migration patterns among ethnic Fulani cattle breeders.
Omeri claimed that Shettima had established "that there were no sufficient facts on the alleged abduction", adding: "We hereby wish to state that based on available facts before us there was no abduction of 60 persons in Borno state."
Residents from Kummabza and the surrounding villages attacked over three days from last Thursday, however, said they could not understand the denial.
"This is happening. I can't understand why they would say that. It has been confirmed," one man, who asked for his name to be withheld, told AFP.
Establishing facts on the ground is notoriously difficult in northeast Nigeria, which has been hard hit by five years of violence at the hands of the heavily armed militant group.
Mobile phone networks have been downed and there are few functioning landlines, while travel between towns and villages is fraught with the danger of attack. Often news of attacks takes days to emerge.
Independent corroboration of claims is also hard to come by, with the police and security services also unable to move freely because of dangerous conditions.
Nigeria's government was heavily criticised for its slow response to the mass abduction by Boko Haram militants of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, also in Borno, on April 14, that triggered global outrage.
The military claimed in the days after the kidnapping that most of the girls had escaped, while President Goodluck Jonathan's wife, Patience, alleged that the abduction was a fabrication by her husband's political rivals to smear him.
The military's claim was soon retracted.
Police in Borno said that 276 girls were kidnapped and that 53 escaped in the days following the attack. On May 28, the authorities said that four more girls than previously thought had escaped, leaving 219 still held hostage.
The figures were confirmed in a report submitted to the government by a presidential fact-finding committee this week.
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- Boko Haram
- Kashim Shettima