A top Nigerian military official said Monday that the government knows the whereabouts of several hundred kidnapped girls but cannot reveal their location and cannot use force to rescue them, according to the Web site of the Ogun state television service.

“The good news for the parents of the girls is that we know where they are, but we cannot tell you,” Air Marshal Alex Badeh, the government’s chief of defense staff, was quoted telling a group of visitors at his office in the capital, Abuja. He reportedly told the group, “Just leave us alone, we are working to get the girls back.”

Badeh’s comments could not be independently confirmed but were reported by Ogun, Al Jazeera and other major TV channels in Nigeria. They marked the first time that a Nigerian official has revealed having any information about the location of the girls, whose abduction six weeks ago by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram created an international uproar.

A U.S. Defense Department spokesman in Washington told the Associated Press that the Pentagon cannot confirm the reports about the Nigerian girls.

Nigerian forces have been searching for the missing girls with help from U.S. and other Western experts, as well as aerial surveillance provided by U.S. drones. Until now, officials have said they believe the girls are probably being hidden somewhere in the vast Sambisa forest in northeast Nigeria, but they have not hinted at suspecting a specific location.

There have been unconfirmed reports in the past week that Nigerian officials were close to making some agreement with Boko Haram in which they would release the girls in exchange for the government freeing some captured members or their relatives. The government denied the reports, with senior officials saying they would not negotiate with the terrorist sect.

It was difficult to know how specific Badeh intended to be in his statement, which appeared aimed more at reassuring his visitors — a group of Nigerians concerned about security issues — that the military was doing its job but would not use force to try and rescue the girls for fear of endangering their lives.

“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?” he was quoted by Ogun as saying. “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.”

The government has come under intense public criticism for failing to locate and rescue the girls, who were abducted from a remote village school in Borno State on April 15. Women’s rights groups have held daily protests in the capital, and a social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, has continued to draw wide support.

Badeh expressed concern that the military was being unfairly criticized and defended its efforts to fight the Islamist militants. He said it was a difficult mission because the adversaries are homegrown “brothers,” rather than foreign enemies. Many Boko Haram fighters are young, jobless Muslims lured by Boko Haram’s message of creating a pure Islamic state.

“We are not happy at all, because we are killing our own kinsmen and we are killing mostly the youths,” Badeh said.“This war should not be fought by the military alone, but by all Nigerians.” He asked the public not to “disparage” the military, because “you don’t have another one.”