Details emerged Wednesday of an apparent Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian village in which at least 150 people died, the latest in a series of attacks and abductions of schoolgirls attributed to the group.
Militants dressed in military uniforms, backed by armored personnel carriers and shouting “God is great” attacked Gamboru Ngala on Monday afternoon, firing rocket-propelled grenades and tossing improvised bombs into a crowded outdoor marketplace, witnesses told CNN on Wednesday.
They then set fire to buildings where people had tried to take shelter from the violence, the witnesses said.
The fighters also attacked the police station during the 12-hour assault, initially facing stiff resistance. They eventually used explosives to blow the roof off the building, witnesses said. Fourteen police officers were found dead inside, they said.
The final death toll could be closer to 300, Nigerian Sen. Ahmed Zanna told CNN.
It’s unclear what impact the attack could have on the international response to Nigeria’s fight with Boko Haram, which so far has been concentrated on helping the government rescue 276 schoolgirls abducted last month by the militant group.
Nigerian authorities have blamed the group for dozens of deadly attacks in the country’s north.
They offered a reward of about $310,000 on Wednesday for information leading to the rescue of the girls.
“While calling on the general public to be part of the solution to the present security challenge, the Police High Command also reassures all citizens that any information given would be treated anonymously and with utmost confidentiality,” the Nigeria Police Force said in a statement.
The government also has accepted U.S. and British offers of assistance, officials with those governments said.
Members of the U.S. Congress called for action, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the abductions “abominable” and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani children’s rights activist shot in the head by the Taliban, spoke out, too.
“The girls in Nigeria are my sisters and it is my responsibility that I speak up for my sisters,” Yousafzai told CNN’s “Amanpour.”
“I felt that i should speak up for them and i should raise my voice for their rights,” she said.
International aid taking shape
Meanwhile, U.S. officials pressed ahead with plans to provide Nigeria with law enforcement assistance and military consultations, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“Obviously, this is in the interest of the Nigerian government to accept every aspect of our assistance,” she said. “They conveyed that they were willing to do that yesterday and it continues to be in their interest to be as cooperative as possible.”
U.S. officials will establish a “coordination cell” to provide intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiation expertise, Psaki said. The cell will include U.S. military personnel.
The joint coordination cell will be established at the U.S. Embassy in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the work is expected to begin immediately.
The Pentagon has started planning for how it can help Nigeria, a senior U.S. military official told CNN. U.S. military assistance will likely be limited to intelligence, mission planning and hostage negotiations, several officials told CNN. It’s unlikely at this point that U.S. troops would be involved in operations, the officials said.
British officials will send a small team of experts to complement the U.S. team, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday. The spokesman didn’t specify the nature of the team’s expertise.
Defending the response
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has come under fire after waiting three weeks to publicly acknowledge the kidnappings.
His administration, however, is defending its response — even as details emerged Tuesday about a second mass kidnapping.
“The President and the government (are) not taking this as easy as people all over the world think,” said presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe.
“We’ve done a lot, but we are not talking about it. We’re not Americans. We’re not showing people, you know, but it does not mean that we are not doing something,” Okupe said Tuesday.
The presidential spokesman said helicopters and planes have searched for the girls in 250 locations. More troops, he said, are on the way.
Despite the flurry of activity, the father of two of the schoolgirls taken by Boko Haram scoffed at the Nigerian government’s response.
“We have never seen any military man there,” said the father, who is not being identified for fear of reprisals by the government or Boko Haram.
“Had it been military men who went into the bush to rescue our daughters, we would have seen them.”
Another mass abduction
But even as the help was offered to Jonathan, new details were emerging about the abduction of at least eight girls between the ages of 12 and 15, who were snatched Sunday night from the village of Warabe.
The village is in the rural northeast, near the border with Cameroon, an area considered a stronghold for Boko Haram. U.S. officials say the group has received training from al Qaeda affiliates.
Villagers in Warabe told CNN that gunmen moved from door to door late Sunday, snatching the girls and beating anybody who tried to stop them.
The latest abductions come amid international outcry over the April 14 kidnapping of the 276 girls. According to accounts, armed members of Boko Haram overpowered security guards at an all-girls school in Chibok, yanked the girls out of bed and forced them into trucks. The convoy of trucks then disappeared into the dense forest bordering Cameroon.
‘Western education is sin’
Boko Haram translates to “Western education is sin” in the local Hausa language, and the group has said its aim is to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa’s most populous nation, which is split between a majority Muslim north and a mostly Christian south.
The United States has branded Boko Haram a terror organization and has put a $7 million bounty on the group’s elusive leader, Abubakar Shekau.
In recent years, the group has stepped up its attacks, bombing schools, churches and mosques.
But it is the abductions of girls that have spawned the biggest outrage, with a #BringBackOurGirls campaign that initially began on Twitter and then quickly spread with demonstrators taking to the streets over the weekend in major cities around the world to demand action.
A man claiming to be Shekau appeared in a video announcing he would sell his victims. The video was first obtained Monday by Agence-France Presse.
“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah,” he said. “There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.”
In the United States, all 20 women serving in the Senate signed a bipartisan letter calling on Obama to take action.
“More can be done by this administration. I would like to see special forces deployed to help rescue these young girls. Some of these girls are as young as 9 years old,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told CNN. “…They’re being sold into slavery, forced into marriages, required to convert. This is just horrible.”
More than 450,000 people, including celebrities and lawmakers, to date have signed a change.org petition that calls upon the world to act to save the girls. The petition calls on Jonathan and the government “to ensure all schools are safe places to learn, protected from attack.”
‘You can never rule out surprise’
Nigerian Minister of Information Labaran Maku told CNN that despite international reaction and media reports, there have been some successes in combating Boko Haram.
But when asked about bombings in Abuja, which came the same day as the mass abduction of schoolgirls, he said: “In the case of insurgency and guerrilla warfare, you can never rule out surprise here and there.”
He also declined to agree that misinformation released by the military after the April kidnapping added to the growing outrage.
First, the military said all the girls had been released or rescued. But after the girls’ families began asking where their daughters were, the military retracted the statement.
“When they made that statement, it was based on a report they received,” the minister said.