LAGOS, Nigeria — Dozens of schoolgirls abducted by armed militants in northeastern Nigeria this week remained missing on Thursday amid fears that they would be turned into “sex slaves and cooks” if they were not rescued, a top official in the region said.
The girls were kidnapped early Tuesday from a state school in the heartland of the Boko Haram insurgency, startling a country already numbed by a steady drumbeat of horrific episodes — massacres, bombings, shootings — attributed to the Islamist militant group. A bus-station bombing in Abuja, the capital, that killed more than 70 people on Monday, was also attributed to the group.
The mass targeting of teenage girls touched a nerve, with banner headlines recounting the girls’ plight filling Nigerian papers this week.
Some of the girls managed to escape by jumping off trucks that the gunmen had crammed them into, and others slipped away as they were forced into cooking chores in the forest, said the governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima. But as of Thursday, 52 parents were still reporting their daughters as missing, he said.
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“This is the most traumatic incident yet,” Shettima said, speaking from the state capital, Maiduguri, a city that has been battered by repeated killing over the last five years of the insurgency. “Very terrible, sad,” he said. “These were innocent girls. They were studying.”
“They are young men,” he said, speaking of the kidnappers. “And most of these ladies will be turned into their sex slaves and cooks.”
Ten of the girls escaped as they “were forced to cook for the Boko Haram,” the governor said. “They were told to use the leaves of the trees to clean the plates. That is the opportunity they took to escape.”
Another four jumped from trucks, and all 14 were “so traumatized,” he said.
The group has targeted students in the past, killing young men and kidnapping young women. It has sometimes let the women go, but there was no indication that would be the case this time.
The Nigerian military said on Wednesday that only eight of the girls were still missing, but that was quickly contradicted by the school’s principal, Asabe Kwambura, who said in a phone interview that it was not true.
The gunmen arrived at the school Tuesday under the cover of early-morning darkness in 60 vehicles, including 40 motorcycles, a mode of transportation favored by Boko Haram, Shettima said. The students had been staying overnight at the school to take their final exams. The gunmen first attacked the village, setting buildings on fire, then shot and killed a soldier and a police officer guarding the school.