The Nigerian government knows where nearly 300 abducted schoolgirls are being held by Islamic extremists but is incapable of using force to rescue them, the country's defense chief said Monday.
Air Marshal Alex Barde made the comment in remarks to demonstrators supporting the military in Abuja on Monday, the state-run Nigerian News Agency reported.
He said the government cannot disclose the whereabouts of the girls, who were taken from a remote area of northeastern Nigeria by the extremist group Boko Haram.
"We want our girls back. I can tell you that our military can and will do it, but where they are held, can we go there with force?'' Barde said, the agency reported.
"Nobody should say Nigerian military does not know what it is doing; we can't kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.''
He added: "The good news for the parents of the girls is that we know where they are, but we cannot tell you. ... We cannot come and tell you the military secret. Just leave us alone; we are working to get the girls back."
The Nigerian government has come under criticism for failing to act to rescue the girls, whose abduction has become a global human rights issue. The pressure prompted Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to accept international help in the search, including U.S. planes and British, French and Israeli advisers.
Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby said U.S. officials were not able to confirm the report, CNN reported.
Boko Haram translates as "Western education is a sin," and the militant group says its aim is to impose a stricter enforcement of sharia law across Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.
The Associated Press reported that Barde spoke to a receptive, pro-military crowd that appeared to have been organized.
Asked by reporters where they had found the girls, Barde refused to elaborate, the AP reported.
"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?" Barde asked. "They will die," the demonstrators said.