The American and African forces sent to Cameroon to fight Boko Haram have, on several occasions, located clusters of the schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant group two years ago, United States officials said.
Rescue operations have not been carried out, the officials said, because of fears that any ensuing battle with Boko Haram fighters would put the captives at risk, or incite some form of retaliation against hostages still being held in other areas.
American officials said a combination of local intelligence, intercepted communications and drone footage had been used to locate groups of the 276 girls abducted from the Government Girls Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok two years ago this month. Some of the girls have since been tracked to Nigeria’s sprawling Sambisa Forest.
Officials insist that efforts to free the girls have not been abandoned. They say that a major concern is the hundreds of other women and girls who are also held by Boko Haram, captives who are often sexually assaulted, forced into marriages with their tormentors, and sometimes killed.
“You’re not just looking for 200 girls,” said Gen. Carter F. Ham, the retired head of the United States military’s Africa Command. “There are many, many others who have been taken hostage, and more thousands killed, and two and a half million people displaced.”
Senior American military officials joined Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, in Cameroon this week to speak with the country’s military and civilian leaders about the fight against Boko Haram and information gleaned by American intelligence.
The talks took place not far from where American Special Operations forces and hundreds of surveillance drone operators are based. Despite the proximity of the troops, Boko Haram’s attacks continued.
On Monday night, three Cameroonian soldiers were killed and five were wounded after Boko Haram fighters ambushed a military convoy near Dabanga, a town in the country’s north, Cameroonian military officials said. The ambush followed intense fighting on the Nigerian side of the border, where Boko militants attacked an army base, wounding 22 soldiers.
United States military officials said that intelligence reports show that the girls have been divided into smaller groups. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the military’s Africa Command, told reporters at the Pentagon this month that the Chibok girls have been “moved to some very isolated places.” General Rodriguez added that locating them is “not an exact science.”
Because the girls have been dispersed, military forces from Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon might need to mount simultaneous rescues to make sure that Boko Haram fighters do not retaliate for the rescue of one group. Such a multipronged, coordinated operation would be difficult even for highly trained American troops with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq to pull off