Haruna Umar and Michelle Faul, ASSOCIATED PRESS
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Scores more women and children have been rescued from Islamic extremists in the remote Sambisa Forest, Nigeria’s military said amid reports that some of the women fought their rescuers fiercely.
A community leader from the area of northeast Nigeria said Thursday that a senior army officer who was at the scene described the women opening fire on shocked troops in the village of Nbita a week ago, with Boko Haram Islamic insurgents using the women to shield their main fighting force.
He said he was told that 12 women fighters and seven soldiers died in a fierce firefight. The community leader spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and personal security risks.
Some of the women and girls are pregnant, according to Muhammad Gavi, a spokesman for a self-defense group that fights Boko Haram who said some members have seen the females.
The Nigerian military first reported rescuing almost 300 women and children in the Sambisa Forest on Tuesday after deploying ground troops into the forest more than a week ago. The army spokesman, Col. Sani Usman, told The Associated Press on Thursday that more than 100 additional girls and over 50 more women have also been rescued.
He said in a statement that several lives were lost, including that of a soldier and a woman, during shootouts in nine separate extremist camps in the forest.
He said eight women sustained gunshot wounds and four soldiers were seriously injured. It was not clear who shot the women. All the women and children were being evacuated to a safety zone for further processing, Usman said.
It remains unclear if some of the women had willingly joined Boko Haram, or are family members of fighters.
Also killed were several Boko Haram field commanders and foot soldiers. Combat tanks and munitions of high caliber used by Boko Haram were also recovered while others were destroyed, the army spokesman said.
The military was flying in medical and intelligence teams to evaluate the former captives, many of whom were severely traumatized, Usman said earlier.
It is still unclear if any of the schoolgirls kidnapped from the northeastern town of Chibok a year ago were among those rescued.
The plight of the schoolgirls, who have become known as “the Chibok girls,” aroused international outrage and a campaign for their release under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Their kidnapping brought Boko Haram, whose nickname means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, to the world’s attention. Of the Chibok girls, 219 remain missing.
Nigerian military and counter-insurgency spokesmen have said they have information indicating at least some of the Chibok girls still are being held in the Sambisa Forest.
Some captives have reportedly become indoctrinated into believing the group’s Islamic extremist ideology, while others established strong emotional attachments to militants they had been forced to marry.
The failure of Nigeria’s government and military to quickly rescue the Chibok girls brought international condemnation.
The military initially appeared incapable of curbing Boko Haram as the insurgents took control of a large swath of northeast Nigeria last year and declared it an Islamic caliphate. That changed when the military received much-needed helicopter gunships and heavy arms and a multinational force launched an offensive at the end of January.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said Thursday only the Sambisa Forest remains a refuge for the militants.
Jonathan pledged to “hand over a Nigeria completely free of terrorist strongholds,” at a regional meeting of customs officials Thursday.
He lost March 28 elections, in part because of the military failures and a perceived uncaring attitude to the plight of victims of Boko Haram. Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari becomes president on May 29.
Faul reported from Abuja, Nigeria.
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