Nigeria’s military rescued 234 more girls and women from a Boko Haram forest stronghold in the country’s northeast, the military announced Saturday.
More than 677 females have been released this week, as the Nigerian military continues its campaign to push the Islamic extremists out their last remaining strongholds in the Sambisa Forest.
“FLASH: Another set of 234 women and children were rescued through the Kawuri and Konduga end of the (hash)Sambisa Forest on Thursday,” said the Nigerian Defense Headquarters early Saturday on its official Twitter account.
The army has deployed ground troops into the forest after weeks of punishing air raids on the area.
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“The assault on the forest is continuing from various fronts and efforts are concentrated on rescuing hostages of civilians and destroying all terrorist camps and facilities in the forest,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade.
In recent weeks the military and troops from neighboring countries have taken back control of towns in northeastern Nigeria that had been held by Boko Haram and where the extremists had declared an Islamic caliphate.
Sambisa Forest is reported to be the Islamic militants’ last holdout. President Goodluck Jonathan, whose term ends this month, pledged Thursday to “hand over a Nigeria completely free of terrorist strongholds.”
It is not known how many girls, women, boys and men Boko Haram has kidnapped during its nearly 6-year-old rebellion. Nigeria’s army has reported rescuing only females.
Some women shot at their rescuers and were killed, as Boko Haram used them as an armed human shield for its main fighting force.
Soldiers were shocked when women opened fire on troops who had come to rescue them in the village of Nbita last week, The Associated Press was told by a military intelligence officer and a soldier who were at the scene. The women killed seven soldiers and soldiers fighting back killed 12 of the women and wounded several others, they said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Most of the females who have been released are traumatized, said army spokesman Col. Sani Usman. Nigeria’s military says it has flown in medical and intelligence teams to screen the rescued girls and women and find out their identities.
It is still not known if any are the schoolgirls kidnapped from a boarding school in Chibok town a year ago – a mass kidnapping that outraged much of the world.
Some identify with the insurgents’ extremist ideology after months of captivity and forced marriages, a counselor who has helped rehabilitate other women held captive by Boko Haram told the AP. It remains unclear if some of the women had willingly joined Boko Haram, or are family members of fighters.
Some of the freed women and girls are pregnant, Muhammad Gavi, a spokesman for a self-defense group that fights Boko Haram, said citing information from group members who have seen the females.
Amnesty International called on authorities “to ensure that the trauma of those ‘rescued' is not exacerbated by lengthy security screening in detention.”
The Nigerian military Friday released photos of about 20 subdued-looking children and women they said the pictures were taken between Tuesday and Thursday in the Sambisa Forest. They females look generally healthy but at least one child looks emaciated and some children have the orange-colored hair signaling severe malnutrition.
A young military medic with blue rubber gloves and a surgical mask appears to be checking several children.
Boko Haram continues to attack in isolated places. A Boko Haram attack on Karamga island in Lake Chad last weekend killed 156 militants, 46 Niger soldiers and 28 civilians, said the government of the neighboring country of Niger.
The governor of a province in Niger has ordered residents living near Lake Chad to evacuate by Monday when troops will flush the militants from hideouts, said a government official.
As the Islamic insurgency spilled over Nigeria’s borders, a multinational force formed with troops from the neighboring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroon deployed at the end of January. Nigeria’s military, which had largely failed to curb the rebellion, has been reinvigorated by new weapons including helicopter gunships.
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.