Nigerian military forces on Tuesday announced the rescue of 200 girls and 93 women from Sambisa Forest —but officials don’t yet know whether the rescued captives are the specific girls taken by Boko Haram militants en masse from Chibok last year, a spokesman for the country’s president said.
"Whoever they are, the important thing is that these girls were in the custody of terrorists in the Sambisa Forests and now they are free," Reuben Abati, chief spokesman to outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, told NBC News.
The military operation in the country's northeast Tuesday destroyed three terrorist camps, the military said in a statement.
The mass kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok sparked an international outcry last April. The group Boko Haram — which roughly translated means "Western education is a sin" — has been waging a bloody war in the region in the hopes of establishing an Islamic state. Some of the girls escaped.
Some were skeptical of the government's announcement.
"If the soldiers have indeed rescued 200 girls and 93 women then they should show them," Bulama Mali Gubio, spokeswoman for the Borno Elder's Forum, said.
"When [Abubakar] Shekau [Boko Haram's apparent leader] kidnapped the Chibok girls he released video footage for everyone to see — this is the age of modern technology. Whether these are the same girls or not, people will be skeptical until they see their pictures on the news," he said.
The Sambisa Forest is a vast, remote area of around 23,000 square miles — around the size of West Virginia — that straddles Nigeria's Borno, Yobe, Gombe, and Bauchi states. Historically a game reserve, in recent years it has become one of Boko Haram's main hideouts, with militants retreating to camps within its impenetrable terrain after carrying out attacks.
A recent campaign by Nigeria and its neighbors, which has been successful in regaining much of the territory once overrun by the militants, has in recent weeks turned to attempting to flush out Boko Haram's camps within Sambsia.
At least 15,000 people have died in Boko Haram-linked violence since 2009, according to the United Nations.
Countless more have been abducted, abused, forcibly recruited and subject to "horrific abuse, including sexual enslavement," the U.N.'s human rights chief said this month.
Boko Haram in March pledged its allegiance to the terror group ISIS, which has taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq and carried out gruesome beheadings and other executions. The offer was accepted five days later in an audio message from ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Goodluck Johnathan lost an election to ex-dictator Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, in part because of the country's inability to stem the growth of Boko Haram. Buhari, who briefly led the country after a military coup in 1983, promised to "choke" the terror group.