U.S. efforts to assist the Nigerian military in locating more than 200 girls kidnapped in April grew more complicated amid reports Tuesday that the Boko Haram terror group conducted another mass abduction last week in northeastern Nigeria.
In raids in the northeast, the extremists abducted a total of 91 villagers – 60 girls and women, and 31 boys, according to residents of the area cited by the Associated Press.
A local official confirmed the abductions, but Nigerian security forces denied them, the AP reported.
The U.S. has been flying manned and unmanned surveillance missions over vast stretches of Nigeria's northeastern Borno state since more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped on April 15.
Military and law enforcement officials from the U.S. Embassy in Abuja have also met frequently with their Nigerian counterparts to share intelligence on the search for the girls.
The U.S. has also sent 80 troops to neighboring Chad to coordinate drone flights over Nigeria and provide base security.
Last week, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, pressed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on boosting U.S. efforts to find the girls. "Special Forces should have been on the ground, planning to rescue these girls," Collins said at a hearing of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
"It feels like these girls have been forgotten, pushed off the front pages," she added, and the hope for rescuing them "grows ever dimmer."
Hagel assured Collins that the search for the girls remained a priority of the U.S. Africa Command, but said, "We cannot just drop into a sovereign country."
He also said, "This is about terrain-wise as complicated a part of the world as there is. They have triple, quadruple-canopy jungles. They move them (the girls) around. These are deadly, smart guys, Boko Haram. So we're up against that as well."
The latest round of abductions "highlights the limitations of what the international community can do," according to John Campbell, the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
"There's an easy presumption that the U.S. can go in and solve this thing. That's just not real," said Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The U.S. can assist only to the extent to which it is asked."
Campbell said the latest abductions were "part of a kind of consistent if accelerating pattern" in the tactics of Boko Haram. Unfortunately, "there is nothing new about this," he said, pointing to other terror attacks and kidnappings since the April abduction of schoolgirls.
Only last week, the Nigerian government released a report by a fact-finding commission appointed by President Goodluck Jonathan that finally gave an official count on the number of girls who were kidnapped and the number who escaped.
Nigerian officials said that 276 girls were initially kidnapped and 57 escaped, leaving 219 still missing, the Voice of America reported.
Last Friday, Jonathan renewed his pledge to find the girls and crush Boko Haram, and also pledged to boost the economy in the mostly Muslim north.
"So government is not only making efforts at military or security operations alone," Jonathan said. "We are looking at various economic issues to improve the welfare of citizens."
The State Department has designated Boko Haram, which loosely means "Western education is sinful" in the Hausa language, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and has reported that the group has links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org