Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror group, has rounded up hundreds of women and children and imprisoned them in a school following what appears to be its deadliest attack, survivors and a local official said.
Fighters from the sect drove into the bush and rounded up the victims, who were fleeing an assault on the fishing town of Baga last week, witnesses told the human rights group Amnesty International.
"Boko Haram took around 300 women and kept us in a school in Baga," a woman who was detained for four days told Amnesty. "They released the older women, mothers and most of the children after four days but are still keeping the younger women."
Boko Haram violence in Nigeria, now in its sixth year, has displaced 1.5 million people, according to the U.N. The highest-profile attack was the kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls last year, which inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
At least 3,700 buildings were razed in the Baga attack. About 2,000 people were left missing, and thousands more were forced to flee their homes.
Another survivor, Kaltuma Wari, told the AFP news agency that there were 500 women and hundreds of children held at the school. The mass detention was confirmed to NBC News on Friday by Sen. Ahmed Zanna, a lawmaker from Borno state, where the attack took place. Zanna said he spoke to several people who fled the attack.
Boko Haram has kidnapped countless women in the past, possibly to use as cooks and wives for its fighters. Experts and locals told NBC News that three recent bombings by children suggest that the sect is now forcing female abductees to blow themselves up in suicide attacks.
Zanna said the latest attack mirrored Boko Haram's overrunning of the town of Bama in September. In Bama, the wife of Zanna’s brother was detained along with about 100 others in a residential compound. She eventually escaped.
But the mass detention in Baga casts some doubt on reports that 2,000 people were killed in the attack, Zanna said. He said it is unclear how many of these missing people were in detention, such as those in the school, or had fled to neighboring Chad. The Nigerian government says the death toll in Baga was closer to 150.
With Nigerian elections a month away, President Goodluck Jonathan made an unscheduled visit on Thursday to the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where many people displaced by Boko Haram-related violence have fled.
In a speech filmed by Reuters, he sought to assure the displaced that "government is working very hard to make sure that you don't stay in these camps for too long."
Many Nigerians in the Muslim-majority north feel that Jonathan, a Christian from the south, has been far too quiet on the Boko Haram crisis. Zanna, the local senator, who recently defected from Jonathan's political party, said he was "very, very skeptical" about the timing of the visit.
"All these years he hasn't cared about people in the northeast, until it's a month before the elections," the lawmaker said. "Either way, he will not win in Borno state."
Reuters contributed to this report.