Hopes are dwindling that a would-be female suicide bomber apprehended in Cameroon is one of the missing Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in northern Nigeria nearly two years ago. Officials have delayed questioning and identification efforts because of injuries the girl sustained that require medical care.
Local self-defense forces intercepted two girls strapped with explosives on Friday in the northern Cameroon village of Limani, a region of the country that borders northern Nigeria and has seen an uptick in bombings over the last year.
One of the girls, who local Cameroonian authorities initially said looked about 15 years old and who was apparently drugged, claimed to be one of the nearly 300 girls abducted by Islamist militant group Boko Haram from a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. More than 270 girls were kidnapped but some escaped in the aftermath, leaving about 219 unaccounted for two years later.
Chibok is located in Borno State, the heartland of Boko Haram's decade-long insurgency in the West African country. The Nigerian army has managed to push the militants back in the north over the last year with the help of a coalition of forces from neighboring countries. While Boko Haram has been routed from its strongholds, the militants have regrouped with guerrilla tactics and suicide bombings, and have stepped up cross border attacks in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
The Chibok abduction sparked international outcry — and the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls — with the families and many other Nigerian citizens criticizing former President Goodluck Jonathan and his government for their slow handling of the situation.
As the news spread over the weekend that the attempted suicide bomber could in fact be one of the missing girls, Nigerian authorities moved to send some of the Chibok parents to Cameroon in order to confirm her identity. This meeting and planned questioning were both delayed on Monday until the girl received necessary medical treatment. Authorities did not identify the cause of her injuries.
"She was found to be heavily drugged and bore several injuries on her body, for which she is receiving treatment," said Garba Shehu, a spokesperson for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
In addition to the delay, Shehu told Reuters it appeared unlikely that the girl apprehended in Cameroon was in fact one of the Chibok girls. He cited her apparent age — which he said was between nine and 12 — not the typical age of a secondary school girl who would be around 15.
"All these go to reinforce suspicion that the arrested girls may not fit into the profile of secondary students who are usually of the age 15 and above," Shehu said.
Cameroon officials opted to instead give photos of her to the Nigerian NGO the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, the group that had been coordinating travel for the parents. The organization will give the images to the parents of the Chibok girls in an attempt to identify her.
Comments on Tuesday from an unnamed Nigerian official who reportedly traveled to Cameroon to retrieve the girls have intensified doubts the girl is from Chibok. Speaking to the Associated Press on conditions of anonymity from the capital Yaounde, the official said the would-be bombers had now been identified by name the younger girl was not one of the missing schoolgirls.
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The two parents from Chibok initially selected to embark on the trip to Cameroon were Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Chibok Abducted Girls Movement, and Yana Galang, another member of the group, whose 16-year-old daughter Rifkatu is among the missing.
"If it is true, we are very happy about it. If we see her with our eyes, we will know where our girls are," Galang said over the weekend, before the plans were derailed.
Muhammadu Buhari, who defeated Jonathan in a 2015 election, ordered a new investigation into the kidnappings in January, but there have been no reported developments since.
While the Chibok girls have become the most prominent Boko Haram abductees since the group formed more than a decade ago, there have been other high profile kidnappings, including the largest ever which occurred one year ago in the Borno State town of Damasak. The abduction occurred in March 2015, several months after the militants had carried out an assault on the town and placed it under siege. As military forces descended on Damasak over a two-day period on March 13 until March 15, Boko Haram escaped with 300 children taken from a local school.
In addition to the 300 children abducted from Zanna Mobarti Primary school, another 100 women and children were also taken, according to Human Rights Watch. Relatives say their family members have not been returned, although there have been reports that some have been seen with Boko Haram along the Nigerian border. In a statement on Tuesday, HRW called on the government to take urgent steps to find the children, while calling on the militant group to halt its pattern of kidnapping young children.
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