Nigeria\’s army has rescued nearly 700 hostages from Boko Haram captivity over the past week, but uncertainty remained on Saturday over the fate of the 219 girls seized from their school last year in a kidnapping that sparked outrage across the world.
In the latest rescue, "234 women and children were rescued through the Kawuri and Konduga end of Sambisa forest on Thursday," the defence headquarters said in a statement late Friday.
"They have been evacuated to join others at the place of ongoing screening," it said, adding that the latest batch was "in addition to the previous individuals earlier rescued during the ongoing operation in the area."
Around 500 women and children have already been freed by the military from the Islamists in the past few days.
The military said the "assault on the forest is continuing from various fronts and efforts are concentrated on rescuing hostages or civilians and destroying all terrorists camps and facilities in the forest."
Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman told AFP Saturday that troops faced little resistance in their latest rescue operation.
"So, there were no casualties sustained among the rescued hostages this time. They are traumatised and some of them are sick," he said.
Usman said the hostages would undergo screening to "determine their status, whether they are hostages or terrorist fighters."
"Terrorists are known to use women in their terrorist acts and have used them as suicide bombers. Therefore there is need for thorough investigation to establish their true identities".
The numbers of hostages freed underlined the scale of the mass abduction tactic used by the militants, who according to Amnesty International have seized about 2,000 women and girls since the start of last year.
Female former hostages have described being subjected to forced labour and sexual and psychological abuse. Some have also had to fight on the frontline alongside the rebels.
It was still not clear if any of the 219 girls snatched in April 2014 from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok were among the freed hostages.
Rights activists on Saturday praised the military successes, but expressed hope that the missing schoolgirls would soon be found.
"Anybody that needs to be rescued should be rescued. We must never come to this sorry state again," Joe Okei-Odumakin of the Campaign for Democracy told AFP.
"With the way the military operations are going, I am hopeful that we going to get the Chibok girls out," she said.
"The Chibok girls remain the rallying point for the struggle. We understand over 2,000 have been taken by Boko Haram. We should work collectivity to liberate all of them," she added.
Odumakin urged prompt medical attention for those freed. "They should be given proper medical attention, unite with their families and be assisted to live normal life."
Public commentator Tony Uranta commended the troops for their string of successful operations, adding that the recent provision of equipment and weapons likely played a part.
"It is not that the military were not willing to fight. But you cannot fight terrorists with bare hands. Why it is happening now is because they can lay their hands on equipment," he said.
"The fact that the military have rescued more than 500 people in just one week means they can do more if given the necessary encouragement and equipment," he said.
Uranta also said concerted effort should be made to free the remaining hostages.
"It is not just the Chibok girls. All hostages still with Boko Haram should be rescued," he said.
The mass kidnapping in Chibok prompted global outrage and forced President Goodluck Jonathan to accept international help in the search operation for the missing girls.
The outgoing president has come under severe criticism for not doing enough to free the Chibok girls as well as end the Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed at least 15,000 lives and forced some 1.5 million people to flee their homes since 2009.
Jonathan hands over power on May 29 to Muhammadu Buhari, who defeated the outgoing president in a historic election in March after campaigning against his record on security.