(Photo: Reuters/Gary Cameron)
The over 270 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic militants Boko Haram have likely been raped and face a life of sexual slavery if not rescued, a human rights group in Africa said.
"We can safely assume that the abducted girls have been raped by their captors, if not worse," said Rona Peligal, deputy director for the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, according to FoxNews.com. "If they return home, they could be traumatized and stigmatized if they are known to be raped, pregnant or with child from their abductors. What happens if they're trafficked would likely pale by comparison."
The Nigerian girls, most of them Christians, were taken last from an all-girls school in Chibok, Borno State, last month, after armed Islamic militants stormed in with trucks.
While Boko Haram has been waging war on the Nigerian government and has targeted Christians for over five years, the kidnappings have sparked an international outcry, with the U.S. announcing earlier this week that it would send military, intelligence and law enforcement agents to Nigeria to help with the search and rescue.
"You've got one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations in Boko Haram in Nigeria, they've been killing people ruthlessly for many years now and we've already been seeking greater cooperation with the Nigerians – this may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that's perpetrated such a terrible crime," Obama told ABC News.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has accepted the offer, which has been praised by Christian groups.
"We acknowledge that yesterday President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would be setting up a Coordinated Cell within the American embassy in Nigeria to provide intelligence and investigation assistance," said Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans President Dr. James Fadel at a press conference on Wednesday. "We have heard as well that the Nigerian government has accepted this offer. We are grateful."
Fadel urged the U.S. to "use every available tool within its arsenal to trace, track and terminate the funding and operations of Boko Haram which has claimed responsibility for this horrendous abduction."
On Monday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau admitted that his group was behind the mass kidnappings and said that he plans to sell the schoolgirls.
"I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah," Shekau said in a video translated by CNN.
"There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women."
Rescue teams believe the militants are hiding out in the vast Sambisa Forest in northeastern Nigeria, Fox noted. Fears are that the girls could be sent throughout Africa, Russia, the Middle East and even Europe and sold as sex slaves.
On Thursday, the Vatican called for the release of the kidnapped schoolgirls, with head of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, telling journalists that the incident is the latest episode of "other horrible forms of violence" committed by the terrorist organization in Nigeria.
"The denial of any kind of respect for life and for the dignity of the human person, even the most innocent, vulnerable and defenseless, calls for the strongest condemnation, arouses the most heartfelt feelings of compassion for the victims and instills a sense of horror for the physical and spiritual suffering and the incredible humiliation they have suffered," Fr Lombardi said.
He added that the Holy See hopes and prays that Nigeria "may find the way to end the situation of conflict and hateful terrorism which is a source of incalculable suffering."