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Boko Haram Kidnaps 500 Children In Northeastern Nigeria


Boko Haram militants have kidnapped hundreds of children and women from a town in northeastern Nigeria - this according to villagers and local officials. The Islamist militants began using abductions as a tactic a couple of years ago, getting international attention with last year's kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls. This area was recently liberated from Boko Haram by a regional military coalition. The insurgents are trying to create an Islamic caliphate. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. And, Ofeibea, to begin, what more can you tell us about this alleged mass kidnapping?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Well, the senator who represents the area - and that's Borno State in the Northeast, the hardest hit state in the area - Maina Ma'aji Lawan says many hundreds of children - the number's not exact - were missing and that the very young ones were given to (unintelligible) - that's the madrasas, the Islamic schools. He also says that boys and males who are between 16 and 25 years of age are conscripted by Boko Haram and indoctrinated as supply channels for their, in quotes, "horrible mission." And we're talking about Damasak, which is a trading town in Borno near Niger's borders. And just earlier this month, Nigerian and Chadian troops were the ones who apparently drove out the insurgents and secured the town.

CORNISH: What are the Nigerian authorities saying about these alleged abductions?

QUIST-ARCTON: They're saying that the reports are being investigated and giving a slightly different spin to it. I've been talking to Mike Omeri, who's head of counterinsurgency in the government. And he says the people who've been abducted are being used as human shields. Have a listen.

MIKE OMERI: Even if it is one person that is abducted or taken or kidnapped, Nigeria feels concerned. And Nigeria will do its best to rescue that person. Damasak has been retaken, of course. But the people reported to have been taken are being used by Boko Haram as shields against the advancing armed forces because Boko Haram - they are retreating as a result of the threat from the troops.

CORNISH: As you've mentioned, there are forces from neighboring countries now reporting battlefield victories against Boko Haram. Will Nigeria's military be able to hold those gains, especially after essentially the failure to do so for many years?

QUIST-ARCTON: And, Audie, that is exactly what we're hearing from the troops from neighboring countries - that they have secured towns. And they don't see a Nigerian soldier in the area - that they're waiting for them to come and take over so that Boko Haram does not then recapture captured territory. So there seems to be a lack of coordination. But when I spoke to Mike Omeri, he says, no, we are leading this coalition force. And they are helping us, and the coordination is fine. But there are question marks. And look at this incident in Damasak and these boys and children and women apparently being abducted.

CORNISH: Finally, Ofeibea, presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on Saturday. Right now, how much of a priority is security to Nigerian voters?

QUIST-ARCTON: Security is a big issue for Nigerians, especially those in the northeast. We're talking about up to a million people who have been displaced in recent months by Boko Haram. One question - are they going to be able to vote? The electoral commission says, yes. And then for other Nigerians, has the government truly got a hand - have they been able to subdue Boko Haram? President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election, says, yes, within a month. Many Nigerians are saying, is this certain? After six years, have they really been able to contain Boko Haram within six weeks?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, speaking to us from Abuja, Nigeria. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.