ABUJA: Nigeria’s highest ranking military officer on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) gave a glimmer of hope to the families of more than 200 schoolgirls held by Boko Haram militants, revealing they had located the missing teenagers.
But Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, warned that any potential armed rescue operation was fraught with danger as the 223 girls still held hostage could be caught in the crossfire.
Boko Haram fighters kid–napped 276 girls from the remote northeastern town of Chibok on April 14, leading to global outrage.
“The good news for the girls is that we know where they are but we cannot tell you,” Badeh told reporters in the capital Abuja, as the hostage crisis entered its seventh week.
Nigeria’s government and military have been sharply criticized for their slow response to the mass abduction and were finally forced to accept foreign help in the rescue effort.
US drones have been surveying northeast Nigeria and neighboring Chad from the air while British, French and Israeli teams have been on the ground providing speci- alist assistance.
The military has previously said that the search was centered around the Sambisa forest area of Borno, in northeast Nigeria, where makeshift militant camps have previously been found as well as arms and ammuni-tion caches.
Dilemma of ground troops
Badeh earlier addressed demonstrators who had marched on Defense Headquarters in Abuja in the latest in a series of protests that have sought to maintain pressure on the government and keep the disappearance in the spotlight.
The officer refused to divulge specific details, describing the operation as a “military secret,” but he added: “We are working. We will get the girls back.”
Addressing the protesters, Badeh said the military was faced with a dilemma of whether to send in ground troops, given fears of deaths and casualties among the hostages.
“Nobody should come and say the Nigerian military does not know what it’s doing. We know what we are doing. We can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back,” he told the crowd.
“So, we are working. The president [Goodluck Jonathan] is solidly behind us. The president has empowered us to do the work,” he added.
The United Nations Security Council last week designated Boko Haram an Al-Qaeda-linked organization, in a move designed to curb any overseas funding and support, as well as restrict its leaders’ movements.
But analysts have ques–tioned whether the sanctions would have any effect on the ground, given the Islamists’ largely localized campaign of murderous violence to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
Others have expressed concern that the international attention has even legitimized and enhanced Boko Haram’s status within the wider, global jihadi network, which could prompt more support from other extremist groups.