ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigeria’s military has located nearly 300 school girls abducted by Islamic extremists but fears that using force to try to free them could get them killed, the country’s chief of defense said Monday.
Air Marshal Alex Badeh told demonstrators supporting the much-criticized military that Nigerian troops can save the girls. But he added, ‘‘we can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.’’
He spoke to thousands of demonstrators who marched to Defense Ministry headquarters in Abuja, the capital. Many were brought in on buses, indicating it was an organized event.
Asked by reporters where the girls are located, Badeh refused to elaborate.
‘‘We want our girls back. I can tell you we can do it. Our military can do it. But where they are held, can we go with force?’’ he asked the crowd.
People roared back, ‘‘No!’’
‘‘If we go with force, what will happen?’’ he asked.
‘‘They will die,’’ the demonstrators responded.
That appeared to leave negotiation the sole option, but a human rights activist close to negotiators said a deal to swap the girls for detained Boko Haram members was agreed upon last week and then scuttled at the last minute by President Goodluck Jonathan.
The activist who is close to those mediating between Boko Haram extremists and government officials said the girls would have been freed last week Monday.
Jonathan had already told British officials that he would not consider an exchange. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Nigeria’s military and government have faced national and international outrage over their failure to rescue the girls seized by Boko Haram militants from a remote northeastern school six weeks ago.
President Jonathan was forced this month to accept international help. American planes have been searching for the girls, and Britain, France, Israel and other countries have sent experts in surveillance and hostage negotiation.
The US State Department had no immediate comment on the reports about the girls.
Jonathan’s reluctance to accept help for weeks is seen as unwillingness to have outsiders looking in on what is considered a very corrupt force.
Soldiers have said they are not properly paid, are dumped in dangerous bush with no supplies, and the Boko Haram extremists are better equipped than they are.
Some soldiers have said officers enriching themselves off the defense budget have no interest in halting the 5-year-old uprising, which has killed thousands.
Soldiers near mutiny earlier this month fired on the car of a commanding officer who had come to pay his respects to the bodies of 12 soldiers who their colleagues said were unnecessarily killed by the insurgents in a nighttime ambush.
The military also is accused of killing thousands of detainees held illegally in their barracks, some by shooting and some by torture. Many starved to death or asphyxiated in overcrowded cells, reports said.
More than 300 teenagers were abducted from their school in the town of Chibok on April 15. Police say 53 escaped and 276 remain captive.