ABUJA, Nigeria -- A Nigerian military official's terse assertion Monday that the armed forces know the whereabouts of 276 abducted schoolgirls drew surprisingly little public reaction in the capital Tuesday, but it added a mysterious twist to a string of contradictory official narratives about efforts to find the missing girls.
The startling comments by Nigeria's chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, did not appear to signal a breakthrough in the dramatic saga of the girls, who have not been seen since they were seized by Boko Haram extremists in mid-April. But the remarks suggested that the security forces are less worried about the girls' fates than previously indicated and are trying to figure out the safest way to bring them home.
At an impromptu encounter Monday with military supporters gathered outside the defense ministry, Air Marshal Badeh said, "We know where the girls are, but we cannot tell you." He said the military was reluctant to free the victims by force for fear they would be harmed in the process, and he asked that the public have patience and confidence in the military's plans. "Just leave us alone; we are working to get the girls back," he said in comments shown on state TV.
Officials added no information or details Tuesday to Air Marshal Badeh's brief remarks. A government spokesman, reached by email, said he was traveling and unavailable to comment.
At a rally in Abuja, the capital, more than 500 people from a pro-government umbrella group called the Grand Coalition Against Terrorism gathered to express support for President Goodluck Jonathan and the armed forces. Many participants said the military was right to use caution and avoid armed clashes with Boko Haram militants, and that they hoped that a negotiated solution could be found.
"We trust our military, and we don't need them to tell us everything," said Princess Miriam Onuoha, one of the rally leaders and a member of Nigeria's hereditary tribal royalty, who met Monday with Air Marshal Badeh. "They are on the right track, and they should be patient so as not to harm anyone's human rights. It is not too late to negotiate and resolve this at the table, but it does not need to be done in public."
But several political opposition figures and human rights activists said they were baffled by Air Marshal Badeh's seemingly casual reference to knowing the girls' location after weeks of official statements about an intense ground search, supplemented by aerial surveillance by U.S. drone planes, yielding no significant breakthrough.
Observers said they were more confused than ever about the government's continued mixed signals and seeming shifts on whether to hold talks with the insurgents. Some senior officials have insisted that they will not negotiate with terrorists, while others have hinted at elaborate behind-the-scenes mediation efforts that were suddenly called off by the president.
"It's hard to know what to believe, but from what I am being told, there is no activity, no searching -- just a waiting game going on," said a politician from Borno state, the northern region and Boko Haram stronghold from where the girls were taken.
"I think they want to have a dialogue, but they are also worried about a negative reaction from the international community," the politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing Boko Haram.
A mediation effort may be a further indication that Boko Haram leaders are backing off from their original threats to enslave the girls, forcibly marry them or sneak them into neighboring nations. According to local media reports and some officials, the militant leaders have since lowered their demands, first seeking release of fellow fighters and then asking only that their detained wives and children be freed in exchange for the girls.
Nigerian military officials have expressed strong reluctance to use force against the insurgents, many of whom are jobless youths drawn to Boko Haram's mission of creating an Islamic state. Critics have accused the military of being afraid to fight a hidden guerrilla enemy, but the newly organized movement of civilian supporters has rallied belatedly this week to the government's cause.