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Nigerian military retracts claim that nearly all abducted students were released

By Aminu Abubakar, Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy CNN
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Parents accuse the military of lying about the number of girls who are free
  • One father says it's only 14 of 129; official says at least 30 girls escaped
  • Military continues to search forest in northeast Nigeria, official says

Kano, Nigeria (CNN) -- In an embarrassing blow to its perception from an increasingly skeptical public, the Nigerian military Thursday retracted a report that nearly all the 129 school girls kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram militants had been released.

Just hours after a parent of an abducted girl claimed the Defense Ministry lied Wednesday about all but eight girls finding freedom, the director of defense said the initial report was "not intended to deceive the public."

Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade's statement didn't indicate how many of the girls were still unaccounted for.

"The number of those still missing is not the issue now as the life of every Nigerian is very precious," it said.

'Blatant lie'

Distraught parents have waited for news for four days, putting their faith in a military rescue, said Lawan Zanna, father of one of the students.

A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation: A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation:
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
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Abubakar Shekau is the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria. A reward up to $7 million has been offered by the U.S. government. Abubakar Shekau is the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria. A reward up to $7 million has been offered by the U.S. government.
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They are shocked that the government resorted to "blatant propaganda" and a "blatant lie," he said.

Olukolade said the military received a "major breakthrough" report from a reliable source who supposedly included information from the principal of the school where the students were seized by gunmen Monday night.

But the principal denied releasing any information.

"I never made that claim to anybody," said Asabe Kwambura, principal of Government Girls Secondary School in the northeastern town of Chibok. "A total of 14 out of the 129 students taken away managed to escape and the rest are still being held by their captors."

Olukolade called the misinformation an "unfortunate development indeed."

How many are still missing?

Musa Inuwa Kubo, the Borno state education commissioner, said Thursday that 30 students had come home.

But the principal and Zanna each put the number at 14. Three girls escaped their captors Wednesday and were returned home by herdsmen, Zanna said. Others escaped from a broken truck as the abductors stopped, he said.

The military said "ongoing frantic efforts" of security forces, vigilante groups and hunters are attempting to find and free the students.

Rescue teams, aided by surveillance helicopters, were moving deeper into the vast forest that extends into neighboring Cameroon, said Ali Ndume, a senator representing southern Borno state.

A broken-down truck believed to have been part of the kidnappers' convoy was found at the edge of the forest, which suggests the abductors took their hostages into the woods on foot, he added.

We 'ran into the bush'

The incident began Monday night, when militants engaged in a gunbattle with guards at the boarding school, and then herded the students onto vehicles and drove off, authorities said.

"They left with us in a convoy into the bush," said one girl who escaped, but, citing security concerns, declined to identify herself. "A group of motorcyclists flanked the convoy to ensure none of us escaped."

When a truck broke down, the girls inside were transferred to another truck and the broken one was set afire, the girl said.

Another vehicle then broke down and, as the men tried to fix it, "some of us jumped out of the vehicles and ran into the bush," she said. "We later found our way back to Chibok."

Boko Haram means "Western education is sin" in the local Hausa language. The Islamist militant group is waging a campaign of violence in northeastern Nigeria, particularly in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states.

The militant group has bombed schools, churches and mosques; kidnapped women and children; and assassinated politicians and religious leaders alike. Human Rights Watch says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram-related violence in the past five years.

Armed militant groups in Nigeria's northeastern region are nothing new, but Boko Haram has taken the violence to unprecedented levels since 2009.

In early March, Borno closed its 85 secondary schools and sent more than 120,000 students home after increasing attacks by the group. Chibok is in Borno state.

Borno is one of three states under a state of emergency since mid-May.

Britain offers help

UNICEF has called for the girls' "immediate and unconditional release" and said attacks on Nigerian schools are getting out of control.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was among the world leaders condemning the kidnappings.

"We stand ready to provide assistance to help the Nigerian government ensure that these children can be returned to their families in safety, and to bring to justice those responsible" for the "cowardly act," he said.

READ: Who are Boko Haram?

Journalist Aminu Abubakar reported from Kano, and CNN's Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN's Josh Levs and Vladimir Duthiers contributed to this report.

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