ABUJA, Nigeria — Hundreds of civilians, including many children, have been abducted and are being used as human shields by Boko Haram extremists, a top Nigerian official confirmed Wednesday.
The news of the mass kidnappings comes as Nigeria prepares for crucial elections on Saturday.
Several hundred people were taken captive by the Islamic militants as they retreated earlier this month from Damasak in northeastern Nigeria, Mike Omeri, the Nigerian spokesman for the fight against Boko Haram, told The Associated Press Wednesday. He said he could not specify how many were taken captive but local reports say as many as 500 people were seized.
When troops from Chad and Niger advanced toward Damasak, Boko Haram began taking captives, said Omeri, speaking in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.
"Boko Haram ... rushed to primary schools they took children and adults that they are using as shields to protect themselves from the menacing advance of troops," said Omeri. "They are being used as shields by Boko Haram."
Damasak, near the border with Niger, was recaptured from Boko Haram on March 16. The kidnappings of civilians has only been confirmed now.
The soldiers who recaptured Damasak found the town largely deserted. Damasak had been held for months by Boko Haram, who used the trading town as an administrative center.
The troops from Chad and Niger who now hold Damasak have discovered evidence of a mass grave, Chad's ambassador to the U.N. Mahamat Zene Cherif confirmed Wednesday.
Almost a year ago some 276 girls were kidnapped before dawn from a government boarding school in Chibok. Dozens escaped in the first couple of days, but 219 remain missing. The case of the missing schoolgirls has gained widespread international attention and spawned the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media.
Nigeria's battle against the Islamic extremists is a major issue for the elections to be held Saturday. The 6-year-old Islamic insurgency has killed thousands, including an estimated 10,000 last year. Boko Haram has vowed to violently disrupt the elections.
International assistance desperately is needed for the thousands of Nigerian refugees who have fled the violence, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday as he visited a camp in Cameroon.
Violence in Nigeria has forced more than 192,000 people to flee to the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. But the U.N. refugee agency says the crisis hasn't drawn sufficient international support, calling it one of the most underfunded emergencies in the world.
At Cameroon's Minawao refugee camp, residents aren't getting enough to eat or drink, and there aren't enough toilets or medical supplies, Isaac Luka, a representative of the refugees, said Wednesday.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the agency will funnel more resources to Cameroon, but he noted that they have only received 3 percent of the funding necessary to run Minawao, which is home to 33,000 people.
"Every country in the world needs to understand that Cameroon is not only protecting itself, Cameroon is protecting all of us," he said.
Moki contributed to this report from Minawao, Cameroon. AP writer Cara Anna contributed from the United Nations.