The Nigerian military has rescued more than half of the 110-odd schoolgirls who went missing after the Islamist group Boko Haram launched an attack on a village in the northeastern state of Yobe. Though it was earlier suspected that the extremist group could have abducted dozens of them, it now emerges that many of them were simply unaccounted for as they fled to a nearby forest area when the attack took place.

On early Thursday, 22 February, as many as 76 schoolgirls were thought to have been rescued while the dead bodies of two others were found. Though the Nigerian military did not give an exact number, local reports put the number of those who returned so far at 76. It is yet to be independently confirmed whether any of the girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram when they launched the attack.

"The rescued girls are now in the custody of the Nigerian Army. We will provide more details about their number and condition in due course," said a statement released by the Yobe state government. Nigerian authorities are sometimes known to downplay the scale of such extremist attacks in the African nation.

A group of heavily armed Boko Haram insurgents mounted an attack on a secondary school on Monday, 19 February, forcing dozens of students and staff to flee. More than 800 of the 926 students reported back to school the following day leading to concerns that the remaining children could have been abducted.

This is primarily because of the mass abduction of Chibok schoolgirls carried out by the Islamist group in April 2017 when as many as 275 children were kidnapped and kept in custody for several months.

"Although we were told they had run to some villages, we have been to all these villages mentioned without any luck. We are beginning to harbour fears the worst might have happened," Abubakar Shehu, whose niece is still missing, told the AFP news agency. "We have the fear that we are dealing with another Chibok scenario."

President Muhammadu Buhari has sent three of his top ministers to Yobe to handle the situation while local authorities have been asked to step up their efforts. The government has pledged all necessary assistance to the victims and their family members. Yobe is among the three states in Nigeria severely affected by Boko Haram's armed insurgency.

Boko Haram is a Sunni Islamist group which aspires to impose a strict form of Sharia law in Nigeria but they have been largely driven out of territories with the help of neighbouring countries. The remaining militants still pose significant security challenges to the Nigerian forces.

The group has been blamed for more than 20,000 deaths and forced displacement of 2.6 million people ever since they launched an armed insurgency in 2009. Though the Nigerian government insists the military campaign against Boko Haram militants has been successful and they have been flushed out of their safe havens, violence in some areas continues to batter the region.

Rescued Chibok schoolgirls
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari applauds as he welcomes a group of Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by the millitant group Boko Haram, in Abuja, Nigeria in this file photo Bayo Omoboriowo/Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters