JOS, Nigeria (AP) – Islamic militants killed 48 villagers in northeastern Nigeria near the town where they kidnapped 300 schoolgirls, and the U.S. said Wednesday it was sending in 80 military personnel to expand the drone search for the captives.
The developments came hours after twin car bombings claimed at least 130 lives in this central city – an escalating campaign of violence blamed on the Boko Haram terrorist network and its drive to impose an Islamic state on Nigeria.
The three villages attacked overnight Tuesday and early Wednesday are near the town of Chibok, where the girls were abducted from their boarding school in a brazen April 15 assault that has ignited a global movement to secure their freedom.
First lady Michelle Obama is among those who have joined a viral social media campaign under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, tweeting earlier this month, “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It’s time to #BringBackOurGirls.”
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. was sending in 80 military personnel to help in the search for the missing schoolgirls. In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and the Senate, Obama said the service members were being sent to Chad, which borders northeastern Nigeria, to help with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft missions over Nigeria and the nearby region.
The U.S. mission will help expand drone searches of the region, said Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, adding that this latest deployment will not be involved in ground searches.
The drone – a Predator – will be in addition to the unarmed Global Hawks already being used, a senior U.S. official said. The new flights will be based out of Chad and allow the military to expand its search effort, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has come under intense national and international criticism for its lack of progress in rescuing the 276 schoolgirls. Besides the United States, Britain, Israel and several other nations have offered assistance in the hunt for the girls, amid fears they would be sold into slavery, married off to fighters or worse, following repeated threats by Boko Haram’s leader.
The insurgents have demanded the release of detained Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the girls — a swap officials say the government will not consider.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” has targeted schools, as well as churches, mosques, marketplaces, bus terminals and other spots where large numbers of civilians gather in its violent 5-year campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria, whose 170 million people are half Christians and half Muslims.
During the latest attack on three northeastern villages, terrified residents said they hid in the bush and watched while Boko Haram fighters set their thatched-roof mud homes ablaze.
“We saw our village go up in flames as we hid in the bush waiting for the dawn. We lost everything,” Apagu Maidaga of the village of Alagarno told The Associated Press by telephone. The nearby villages of Bulakurbe and Shawa also were attacked.
In Jos, site of two powerful car bombings Tuesday in a crowded bus terminal and market, rescue workers with body bags combed the rubble for more bodies as scores of residents gathered at mortuaries and hospitals in the search for missing loved ones.
Officials reported an additional 12 deaths from the blasts: Seven mutiliated bodies were recovered from the scene and five of the wounded died in the hospital.
Most victims were women and children who worked in the market as vendors, said Mohammed Abdulsalam of the National Emergency Management Agency. “We expect to find more bodies in the rubble,” he said.
Jos was tense with fears that the attack could inflame religious rivalry in the city, which sits on a volatile fault line dividing Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south and has been a flashpoint for such violence in the past.
“Allahu akhbar!” some young Muslim men yelled provocatively at an AP photographer near the scene, using the war cry of Islamic militants that means “God is great” within hearing of soldiers at a checkpoint.
Officials have suggested the extremists are feeding into tribal and religious tensions to spread the insurgency from their stronghold in Nigeria’s northeast into a region where thousands have been killed in recent years in disputes over land, water, religion and tribe.
At the Jos marketplace, earthmovers demolished buildings weakened by the bomb blasts and fires and moved heavy debris, allowing rescuers to search for more bodies.
Gloria Paul was among those searching for loved ones. She was looking for her husband, but could only find his car, its windows shattered, parked near Terminus Market.
Dozens of wailing people crowded outside the morgue at the Jos University Teaching Hospital near to the bomb site, waiting to see if their missing relatives were among the dead.
Security forces cordoned off the mounds of rubble, burned-out vehicles and razed buildings with the debris of panic scattered around — a sandal here, a hat there. Exploded mangoes and pineapples rotted in the sun, their sickly sweet smell mixing with the stench of rotting human flesh.
A charred engine block was all that remained of the grain-filled truck that held the second bomb. Nearby, a police anti-bomb squad investigated a crater left by one of the blasts.
Despite the latest devastation, Nigerian army spokesman Brig. Gen. Olajide Laleye insisted Wednesday that victory was close, dismissing reports of troops suffering from low morale and lack of basic equipment, including bullet-proof vests.
“I make bold to say that the Nigerian Army is steadily and surely reversing the ugly menace of terrorism and insurgency in the northeast part of this great nation,” he said at an army recruiting campaign.
But extremist attacks have increased in frequency and deadliness, with more than 2,000 people killed so far this year, compared to an estimated 3,600 between 2010 and 2013.
On Monday, a car bomb at a bus station killed 24 people in the Christian quarter of the northern Muslim city of Kano, where police later defused another massive car bomb. Two separate bomb blasts in April around another bus station, in the nation’s capital of Abuja, killed more than 120 people and wounded more than 200.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria. Associated Press writers Sunday Alamba in Jos, Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Bashir Adigun in Abuja and Jim Kuhnhenn and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.