Nigerian army claims to have rescued almost 300 women and girls on Tuesday after seizing three “terrorist camps” from the radical Islamists of Boko Haram.
The army could not confirm whether any of the 219 schoolgirls abducted from the town of Chibok last April were among the freed captives.
But the apparently successful operation raised hopes that the children who were seized during Boko Haram’s most notorious raid might be saved.
The army has mounted a counter-offensive against Boko Haram, seizing back a string of towns and villages from the gunmen and breaking their grip over thousands of square miles of territory in the neighbouring states of Borno and Yobe.
As part of this assault, the army has been trying to clear Boko Haram from Sambisa forest, a remote area near Nigeria’s north-eastern frontier that previously served as their stronghold. The Islamists are known to have established camps and held captives inside Sambisa forest.
“Troops have this afternoon captured and destroyed three camps of terrorists inside the Sambisa forest and rescued 200 girls and 93 women,” said a statement from Chris Olukolade, the Nigerian defence ministry spokesman.
“It is not yet confirmed if the girls are the Chibok girls,” he added. “The freed persons are now being screened and profiled.”
Nigeria’s army has made false claims in the past about releasing captives from Boko Haram. There has been no independent confirmation of the military statement, so it should be treated with caution.
However, the army’s counter-attack has inflicted a series of defeats on Boko Haram, aided by forces deployed by neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. In particular, Nigeria managed to recapture the town of Gwoza, which Boko Haram had used as their headquarters.
The army was known to be conducting a sweep through Sambisa forest, so the latest statement is consistent with the overall picture.
Boko Haram raided a Christian boarding school in the town of Chibok on April 14 last year, carrying away 276 teenage girls. Several dozen managed to escape in the first hours of their captivity, leaving 219 in the hands of the Islamist movement.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, later paraded the girls before a camera, showing that all were clad in niqabs. He announced their forcible conversion to Islam and promised that all would be “sold in the market”.
At that time, searching for the girls did not appear to be a priority for Nigeria’s government under President Goodluck Jonathan, who lost an election last month and will leave office in May.
Since last year, however, Nigeria’s army has taken delivery of new weapons and benefited from Western military advice and intelligence. The British Army has helped to train companies of Nigerian infantry. The result is that the army has been able to carry out an effective counter-offensive against Boko Haram.
Whether those gains can be held – and the many thousands of captives released – is still open to question. Boko Haram recovered from a crushing defeat in 2009 and may prove able to do so again.