More than 100 girls are reported missing after a Boko Haram school attack in northeast Nigeria this week that President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday called a "national disaster".
But locals in the remote town of Dapchi, in Yobe state, said they had been left vulnerable to attack because soldiers had been withdrawn in the last few weeks.
Nigeria's government has been scrambling to contain a growing crisis that has revived memories of the 2014 mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok that shocked the world.
The attack has also raised questions about the military's repeated claims that the Islamist militants are on the verge of defeat, after nearly nine years of bitter fighting.
Terrified pupils fled the boarding school on Monday night when heavily armed fighters in military fatigues and turbans stormed the town, shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is greatest").
The authorities initially denied that any student had been kidnapped but fears have grown all week that they may have been seized, as dozens of girls failed to return home.
In his first expanded comments on Dapchi, President Buhari said: "This is a national disaster. We are sorry that this could have happened.
"We pray that our gallant armed forces will locate and safely return your missing family members.”
Schools, particularly those with a secular curriculum, have been targeted by Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates from Hausa as "Western education is forbidden".
Boko Haram's quest to establish a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has left at least 20,000 dead and made more than 2.6 million others homeless since 2009.
The jihadists have increasingly turned to kidnapping for ransom as a way to finance their operations and win back key commanders in prisoner swaps with the Nigerian government.