The retraction drew an angry response from parents of the missing teens, and according to Nigerian media reports some parents have now resorted to launch a search themselves in a forested area where Boko Haram is known to have hideouts.
The embarrassing reversal by the military’s spokesman is yet another setback in its campaign against the terrorists. Last May President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northern states, granting armed forces sweeping powers and vowing to “win this war against terror.”
Almost a year on, however, the situation looks more dire than ever. The first few months of 2014 have witnessed more than 1,500 deaths, making this year already the deadliest yet in Boko Haram’s jihad, which began escalating in 2009.
The seizure of 129 secondary schoolgirls occurred in Borno, one of the three state of emergency states, just hours after a bombing, also blamed on Boko Haram, killed 75 people in the capital, Abuja – the deadliest terrorist attack ever in the city.
Gunmen raided the school after shooting dead a solder and a policemen before herding the students onto trucks and driving away, according to police and eyewitnesses.
Fourteen of the abducted students managed to escape their captors, and then on Wednesday, military spokesman Chris Olukolade said in a statement that all but eight of the remaining girls had been released.
After the school’s principal and Borno state officials disputed that, Olukolade issued a retraction on Thursday. He said the earlier information had come from troops on the ground involved in the search operation and that “there was no reason to doubt this official channel.”
The spokesman said the incorrect information had been disseminated in good faith, rejecting accusations that the military was trying to deceive the public.
“Like all other citizens, the military is deeply concerned to ensure that the students are safe and freed alive,” he said. “There is indeed no reason to play politics with the precious lives of the students.”
Borno’s state governor, Kashim Shettima, has offered 50 million naira ($300,000) for any information leading to the rescue of the missing girls.
U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the abduction “a grave violation of international humanitarian law.”
Sometimes known as the “Nigerian Taliban,” Boko Haram is suspected to have links to Somalia’s al-Shabaab and to al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Its founding mission was to oppose non-Islamic education (the name means, loosely, “Western education is prohibited”) but it also demands universal enforcement of shari’a in Nigeria, a country where Christians make up roughly 40 percent of the population of 150 million.
The group has also vowed to cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians, and demanded that Jonathan, a Christian, convert to Islam or resign.
Last November the State Department designated Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, after coming under fire from U.S. lawmakers for almost two years for not taking the step.
FTO designation provides the authority to deport members, deny U.S. visas, block assets and prosecute anyone in the U.S. who provides funds to a listed group.