updated 4/18/2014 7:44:40 PM ET 2014-04-18T23:44:40

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram is still holding 85 girls it abducted from a raid on a secondary school in northeastern Borno state this week, although the other 44 were free, the state government said on Saturday.

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Monday's mass abduction of schoolgirls aged 15 to 18 by Boko Haram, who are fighting for a breakaway Islamic state in northern Nigeria, shocked Africa's most populous country.

It also underscored just how powerless Nigeria's military is at protecting civilians despite a year-long state of emergency meant to flush the rebels out of three states in the northeast.

The Islamists attacked Chibok school, in remote Borno state, which had 129 girls staying in it, on Monday. Most of them were abducted, although the precise numbers were not clear.

Borno state education commissioner Inuwa Kubo said in a statement late on Saturday that 16 students had managed to flee back home during the night of the attack, while another 28 had escaped after being abducted. The other 85 were still missing.

"We continually pray that all our students return in good health," Kubo said.

The armed forces said on Wednesday that the military had freed all but eight of the schoolgirls in a rescue operation, but it retracted that statement a day later.

Boko Haram's five-year-old struggle is now seen as the main security threat to Africa's leading energy producer.

Kidnapping girls is a tactic Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden", began using early last year. It is eerily reminiscent of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, which abducted thousands of school-aged girls across central Africa to use as forced "wives" for their commanders.

The kidnapping occurred the same day a bomb blast, also blamed on Boko Haram, killed 75 people on the edge of the capital Abuja, the first attack on the capital in two years.

(Reporting by Lanre Ola; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Eric Walsh)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp

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