Nigeria hopes rescued women can offer clues to missing girls

A man sells newspapers, featuring a front page article about Nigerian soldiers rescuing a group of women, in Abuja, Nigeria April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde (Reuters)

By Ardo Abdallah and Isaac Abrak BAUCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's military said on Wednesday it had transported nearly 300 women and girls rescued from Boko Haram to the hilly border town of Gwoza, as it seeks clues to the whereabouts of other girls whose abduction last year provoked international outrage. The 200 girls and 93 women were freed from four camps during an army operation in northeastern Borno province as the Nigeria military bears down on what are believed to be Boko Haram's final strongholds in the Sambisa forest. The military said on Tuesday initial enquiries suggested the freed women did not include roughly 200 missing schoolgirls seized a year ago from the northern village of Chibok, whose capture drew global attention to the insurgency in Nigeria. Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, has killed and kidnapped thousands of people since 2009 in Africa's most populous country. It pledged loyalty this year to Islamic State, the militant group that has declared a "caliphate" to rule over all Muslims after seizing much of Syria and Iraq. A military spokesman said on Wednesday the rescued girls would be transported for final checks in the national capital Abuja or Maiduguri, the main city of Borno state. "We will take them to Abuja or Maiduguri for further investigation to determine whether Chibok girls were among them and where they come from," military spokesman Colonel Sani Usman told Reuters. While Boko Haram has snatched at least 2,000 women and girls from their families since the start of 2014, according to Amnesty International, the mass kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls has become a symbol of the insurgency that has plagued Africa's largest oil producer for six years. Diplomats and intelligence officials have said they believe at least some of the Chibok girls were being held in Boko Haram's heavily fortified camps in the Sambisa forest, although U.S. reconnaissance drones have failed to find them. Analysts believe the captured schoolgirls may be used as human shields by the militants. Women abducted by the group have been forced into sexual slavery or combat, Amnesty International said on April 14 in a report to mark the anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping. For parents of the missing Chibok girls, news of the liberation of hundreds of women fired hopes of seeing their daughters alive. "Since I heard the news it's like I'm in heaven," said Esther Yakub, whose daughter Dorcas was kidnapped. "I've never doubted the possibility of getting her back despite the news that has been flying around about all manner of dangers that could have befallen them." "I'm just waiting for the moment when they hand her over into my arms." Boko Haram has been on the back foot since neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon joined Nigerian forces in a joint operation against the group this year. Anger at President Goodluck Jonathan's failure to wipe out the group was a factor in former army general Muhammadu Buhari's decisive victory in Nigerian presidential elections on March 28. Buhari has pledged a much tougher line against the insurgents. "It's too little, too late. This belated attempt is purely a populist agenda just to curry sympathy for the outgoing president with Nigerians," said Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a political analyst, said of the latest offensive. "Whatever meaningful battle against the insurgency will be by the incoming administration." (Writing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff)