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World Boko Haram kidnapping of 110 Nigerian schoolgirls recalls Chibok crisis

Relatives of missing schoolgirls react in Dapchi, Nigeria, on Feb. 23, 2018.

AFOLABI SOTUNDE/REUTERS

Four years after the world was shocked by the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok, an eerily similar kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls by the same Islamist militia is sparking a new national crisis in Nigeria.

In both cases, the kidnappings have been shrouded in denials, confusion, delayed responses and political recriminations. Both have provoked a growing wave of national anger and the belated deployment of military reinforcements to hunt for the missing girls.

The latest kidnapping has exposed the folly of the Nigerian government's repeated claims that it has defeated Boko Haram, the radical Islamist organization that has battled the authorities for the past decade in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians.

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Boko Haram gunmen in pickup trucks, shooting in the air, stormed into the town of Dapchi, about 275 kilometres northwest of Chibok in northern Nigeria, on Feb. 19. They targeted an all-girls boarding school with about 900 students.

Hundreds of students panicked and fled for safety. But there was no immediate military reaction because the military was gone. Just a few days earlier, according to local politicians, the Nigerian military had withdrawn from the town, dismantling the checkpoints that had protected it.

The Nigerian air force has been called in to try and find more than 100 missing girls who were abducted from their school on February 19. Reuters

After the Islamist gunmen had raced out of town, there was confusion about what had happened. For days, there were contradictory reports on how many schoolgirls were missing. Some officials insisted that the missing girls were simply hiding in the bush. Others claimed that the girls had been rescued from the kidnappers. But as parents compiled a list of more than 100 of their daughters who were still missing, the scale of the kidnapping became clear.

President Muhammadu Buhari called it a "national disaster" and apologized to the parents. His government moved hastily to show that it was in control. It sent two delegations to visit Dapchi and announced the deployment of security forces, troops and aircraft to the area to protect the town and search for the kidnapped girls. While the actions were late, they were still faster than the response to the Chibok kidnapping in 2014, when former president Goodluck Jonathan did little for weeks.

The Chibok kidnapping sparked global outrage, leading to the "Bring Back Our Girls" movement with celebrity endorsements and social-media hashtags, along with military assistance from the United States and other countries to search for the girls. Some of the Chibok schoolgirls have been released over the past 16 months, reportedly in exchange for ransoms, but more than 100 are still in Boko Haram's control today.

Mr. Buhari won election in 2015 after campaigning on a promise to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency. Since then, he and his generals have repeatedly claimed victory, despite the continuing violent clashes and deaths. He proclaimed in December, 2015, that Boko Haram had been "technically defeated."

A senior presidential aide, Femi Adesina, made a similar claim on Sunday, saying that the Islamist rebels have been "terribly, terribly degraded" since 2015. But he also expressed regret for the latest kidnapping. "Truly, it should never have happened," he told a Nigerian television station. "After what the country experienced in the Chibok girls saga, this one that just happened in Dapchi should never have happened."

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The Nigerian air force said it was deploying helicopters and other surveillance aircraft and air-force personnel to the region around Dapchi "with the sole mission of conducting day and night searches for the missing girls."

Mr. Buhari, in a statement by a spokesman, said the Dapchi kidnapping was "devastating news." He said he had ordered the security agencies to "deploy in full and not spare any effort."

Directing his words to the families of the kidnapped girls, he said: "We are sorry that this could have happened and share your pain. We pray that our gallant armed forces will locate and safely return your missing family members."

But politicians in Yobe state, where Dapchi is located, were highly critical of the military. "I blame the whole attack on Dapchi on the military and the defence headquarters who withdrew troops from Dapchi," state governor Ibrahim Gaidam told the Nigerian media.

"The attack occurred barely a week after the military withdrew the soldiers from there. Before then, Dapchi had been peaceful, there was never such incident."

He said a local military commander had told him that the withdrawal was a result of a shortage of troops. "To me, it is not an excuse, because it's duty-bound for the federal government to recruit and bridge the gap."

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The Government Girls Science and Technical College, from which the girls were kidnapped, tried to reopen on Monday but its students stayed away. Their parents said the girls were too frightened and traumatized to return. Later, an official said the school will stay closed.

The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, said it was deeply concerned by the "brutal acts of violence" at Nigerian schools. Nearly 1,400 schools have been destroyed and nearly 2,300 teachers have been killed since the war began in 2009, it said.

"Schools should be safe spaces and protected at all times," UNICEF said in a statement. "No words can console a family sending a child to school and not seeing her return home."

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