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Official: Boko Haram kidnaps hundreds of Nigerian civilians

By MICHELLE FAUL and EDWIN KINDZEKA MOKI

Associated Press ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) - Hundreds of civilians, including many children, have been kidnapped and are being used as human shields by Boko Haram extremists, a top Nigerian official confirmed Wednesday.

Several hundred people were abducted 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 kidnapped but local reports say as many as 500 people were taken.

The Islamic rebels went to Damasak's primary schools and rounded up students and teachers and then retreated, said Omeri.

Troops from Chad and Niger recaptured Damasak, near the border with Niger, from Boko Haram on March 16. The mass kidnapping happened as the extremists were fleeing the advancing troops and information about the abductions 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.

International assistance is needed for the thousands of Nigerian refugees who have fled the violence, said the head of the U.N. refugee agency.

Some 74,000 Nigerians have fled to neighboring Cameroon, according to the agency. Over 100,000 more have flooded into Chad and Niger. Troops from the three countries are now helping Nigeria to combat the militants and win back Nigerian towns.

The refugee agency will funnel more resources to Cameroon, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on Wednesday while visiting Maroua, the capital of Cameroon's Far North region. He stressed that additional assistance is needed.

"Cameroon is today not only a very important protection space for refugees, but it is in the first line of defense of the international community," he said.

The U.N. agency says the Nigerian crisis is one of the most underfunded in the world. In February, the agency asked for $71 million to assist displaced people in Nigeria and neighboring countries; already that figure appears to be too low, it said this week. Thus far, it has received only $6.8 million in donations, he said.

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Moki contributed to this report from Maroua, Cameroon. AP writer Cara Anna contributed from the United Nations.

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