ABUJA, Nigeria (USA TODAY) -- The Nigerian government knows where nearly 300 abducted school girls 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 Islamic 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, 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?" he asked. "They will die," the demonstrators said.
Larry Johnson is a former CIA officer and former deputy Director of the U.S. State Department Office of Counterterrorism.
He said that Nigerian military and police forces are not capable rescuing the 300 kidnapped schoolgirls on their own and that the United States does not have the proper personnel in place to do anything meaningful.
Johnson insisted that this would be an enormous logistical undertaking. You have to presume, he said, that Boko Haram has at least several hundred, perhaps even a thousand people ready to fight. A sufficient force would be needed to handle that.
Johnson estimated that a minimum of 1,500 troops would likely be needed, plus support personnel.
"The U.S. Command for africa really doesn't have troops that it can deploy in that kind of number. That leaves you with the Nigerians and the Nigerians are incompetent. The Nigerians coming to rescue you are worse than the terrorists trying to kill you. They just don't have the capability. It's really one of these things that's being presented - it plays well on television, it gets people very emotionally involved and they worry about the poor girls who have been kidnapped but the fact of the matter is that the United States has not devoted anything other than cursory resources to it and pretending to do something about it," said Johnson.
WUSA9 staff contributed to this report.