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Search Efforts For Nigerian Schoolgirls Dogged By Shifting Numbers


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Nigeria's Defense Ministry says it's deploying more troops in the search for more than 200 schoolgirls. They were kidnapped from their dormitories by Islamist militants last week. And since then, the number of missing has wavered, shifted and changed. Dozens of the girls reportedly escaped but it's been unclear how many. Nigerian military officials at one point claimed the rest were rescued. That was denied by the school's principal. Now the search continues despite efforts of security forces and an independent search coordinated by several fathers of the missing teens.

Joining us to talk more is Michelle Faul. She's the Nigeria bureau chief for the Associated Press.

And, Michelle, at this point what is the official number of girls believed to be missing?

MICHELLE FAUL: We still don't have a complete idea of that. It depends on who you speak to. The parents of the girls got together and spoke to the governor of Borno at Chibok town. That is the scene of the abductions and this was yesterday. And they say they have a list with the names of 234 missing girls. The head mistress of the schools has said that there are 230 missing and that that number does not include 43 who have been reunited with their parents.

CORNISH: Is there any idea what's the cause of the shifting figures, why the discrepancy?

FAUL: Well, apparently the head mistress thought that the only girls who were at the school at the time of the abductions were those who had been recalled to write a physics exam. This is because all the schools in Borno state were ordered to shut down a month a go. Now it's not clear whether or some of the students stayed on, weren't able to get home, maybe their families have been displaced in the chaos around this Islamic uprising in the northeast. But they do seem to be agreed at this point that the figure is about 230 that are missing.

CORNISH: And we mentioned earlier that parents have also been conducting a search. Can you talk more about this effort and what these parents are saying?

FAUL: Well, the parents got together with some of the local residents in Chibok. And they pooled their money, bought gas for motorcycles and headed off into the bush. This was after the military announced that all but eight of the girls had been freed, really buoying the spirits of the parents only to have them dashed the following day, so dozens of them then headed into the Sambisa Forest.

Villagers told them they had seen their daughters with the kidnappers and they followed that route. Got to another village where villagers said: Yes, we've seen those girls. And finally they got to a sort of crossroad in the foot paths in this very dense forests. And an old man was there who said yes, he had seen them.

That the girls had been made to get down from a truck and that they were shepherded on foot into the bush along this path, he said. But you cannot go there, it's terribly dangerous. Unless you have security forces with you, you and your daughters could be slaughtered. And they said at that point that his warnings were so strong, they turned around and went back to Chibok town.

CORNISH: In the past, people have looked to the militant Islamist group Boko Haram as being responsible for these kinds of kidnappings. Have they taken credit for this incident?

FAUL: They have not. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, put out a new video which we received on Saturday. He claimed responsibility for the bombing in Abuja, the capital, that killed 75 people and wounded 141. But he made no mention of the kidnappings of these students, which came some hours later.

CORNISH: And what happens next in the search?

FAUL: According to the defense spokesman, they will step up more troops and will continue in their attempts to free these girls. It must be a very delicate operation. I mean there have to be fears that if they were to go into this camp that they might kill the students. I don't know what the difficulties are apart from the difficult terrain.

But I do know that the Air Force has stopped bombing in Sambisa Forest. And this had been going on on a near daily basis. They've been trying to bomb them out of hideouts. And, of course, because of the girls being kidnapped, the Air Force has stopped the bombings. One security official said to me that the girls could have been taken to be held as sex slaves or as human shields. If they wanted to have human shields and they wanted the bombings to stop, then they've succeeded.

CORNISH: That's Michelle Faul. She's the Nigeria bureau chief for the Associated Press. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FAUL: You're most welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.