Dozens of girls and young women are being abducted by Islamic extremists in northeast Nigeria, raising doubts about an announced cease-fire and the hoped-for release of 219 schoolgirls held captive since April.
On October 17, Nigeria's military announced a cease-fire had been agreed with Boko Haram and ordered troops to immediately comply. Officials said the cease-fire would lead to the speedy release of the 219 girls kidnapped from a boarding school in the remote northeastern town of Chibok on April 15.
But there have been a number of kidnappings and battles since then that call into question the cease-fire.
At least 70 teenage girls and boys have been kidnapped in Borno and Adamawa states since October 18, according to local government chairman Shettima Maina and residents who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
The insurgents also launched several attacks since the cease-fire was announced. On Friday a multinational force including troops from Nigeria and Niger engaged in fierce fighting to regain control of Abadam, a town held by Boko Haram on the western shores of Lake Chad.
The continued fighting and abductions raise questions about the cease-fire. Ten days after the announcement, Boko Haram has not indicated that it has agreed to a truce.
Nigeria's minister of foreign affairs, Aminu Wali, said Monday that Boko Haram has denied recent kidnappings and suggested it might be the work of dissidents wanting to break the cease-fire.
He said the release of the Chibok girls is part of ongoing cease-fire negotiations, which would not be affected by the latest abductions.
"There is still negotiation going on and we expect a lot of progress to be made ... And we will make an effort also to bring back those that have been kidnapped," Wali told a news conference in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
Abducted girls are subjected to horrific treatment, Human Rights Watch said in a new report Monday, quoting escapees who described forced marriages and rapes, forced conversions to Islam, forced labor and forced participation in attacks.
The insurgents mainly target Christians and girls who go to school, said Human Rights Watch.
More than 500 girls and women have been kidnapped by Boko Haram since 2009, according to an estimate by the New York-based rights group. Unknown scores of young men also have been kidnapped and forced to join the extremists as fighters.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video last year that his group kidnaps because the military is holding members of Boko Haram families. Nigeria's military and police routinely detain family members of wanted people, even though it is illegal, according to rights groups.
Human Rights Watch said that of the 30 escapees it interviewed only students who escaped from Chibok had received some type of state-supported counseling and medical care. But it quoted one of the Chibok girls as saying the counseling was just speeches by one Christian and one Muslim cleric.
Another Chibok girl said: "I just want someone who will listen to me and help me to stop the fear that takes over my mind when I think of my sisters (school mates) who are still with Boko Haram. I am so afraid for them. Why can't the government bring them back?"