MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AFP) - Suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped at least 20 young mothers near a town in north-east Nigeria where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted nearly two months ago, sources told AFP on Tuesday.
There were conflicting reports of how many women were abducted from the nomadic settlement near Chibok in Borno state, with one local leader putting the number as high as 40. But the latest kidnappings, which happened on Saturday in and around the village of Garkin Fulani, 8km from Chibok, were the latest in a spate in the area.
"Available information revealed that the gunmen came around noon and abducted 20 women and three young men left to keep watch on the village," said Mr Alhaji Tar, of a local vigilante group. "All the males in the settlement were away in the bush with their herd (of cattle) for grazing when the abductors came to the village."
There was no immediate indication of where the women were taken and there had been no contact from the kidnappers, but a source at the National Human Rights Commission said no children were seized. The women were aged between 15 and 30, the source added.
A local official of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) said 40 young mothers were singled out and put into vehicles before being driven to an unknown location.
MACBAN is the umbrella organisation of the nomadic Fulani cattle herders in Nigeria.
Similar kidnappings for ransom have been going on in the area for some time but locals were too afraid to speak out in fear of reprisals from the Islamist militants, the official said.
"This is not the first time women are being kidnapped in this area and only released when we pay cattle ransom to the kidnappers. It has happened several times," said the official.
"They come and go door-to-door bringing women outside and select young women and take them away in their vehicles and demand between 30 and 40 cows for their release", he explained.
Locals always paid the ransom but do not inform the authorities, he said.
A Borno state government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the authorities were aware of the kidnapping of women from the village but denied knowledge of previous abductions.
"This is the first time we are hearing abduction of Fulani women and we are working to establish the circumstances surrounding the kidnap and necessary action to take," he added.
There was no immediate response from Nigeria's military or police but Mr Mike Omerri, co-ordinator at the National Information Centre, said they had not received any reports of such kidnappings.
The abduction of 276 schoolgirls on April 14 was Boko Haram's most daring kidnapping in its five-year insurgency. It attracted worldwide attention and prompted an international rescue effort.
Since the schoolgirls' kidnap, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks, particularly in Borno, where last week hundreds were feared dead in a militant raid on at least four villages.
On Tuesday, the police shut three major markets in Abuja, after intelligence that they were the targets for a Boko Haram attack.
A suburban bus station in the capital was hit twice by bombings in April and May, killing nearly 100, while a busy market in the central city of Jos was targeted on May 20, killing at least 118.
Nigeria's military, which has said it knows where the missing girls are, claimed on Monday that it had prevented "massive" raids on villages in Borno and Adamawa last weekend.
More than 50 militants were killed late on Saturday, while troops seized arms and ammunition, including rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, as well as vehicles.