Wednesday 22 April 2015

Kidnappers try to swap girls to free prisoners in Nigeria

Colin Freeman in Abuja

Published 09/05/2014 | 02:30

Hundreds of people gathered in Johannesburg yesterday for a protest march against the Nigerian government's inability to help the victims of the kidnappings. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Hundreds of people gathered in Johannesburg yesterday for a protest march against the Nigerian government's inability to help the victims of the kidnappings. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Nigerian Islamists who kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls are seeking a prisoner swap for jailed comrades.

Shehu Sani, who has previously brokered face-to-face peace talks with Boko Haram, said he believed that the video in which its leader threatened to sell the girls as "slaves" was proof that it planned to use them as bargaining chips rather than kill them.

The video released earlier this week showed Abu Bakar Shekau gloating that he would sell the captives "in the market" to anybody wishing to take them as wives.

But while the broadcast appalled the captives' families and provoked worldwide outrage, Mr Sani saw it as a veiled attempt to reach out for a trade with the Nigerian government.

"If you look at the fact that these girls have already been in captivity for some three weeks, then it is possible to detect a conciliatory tone in this statement from Shekau – he is not saying he is going to kill the girls," Mr Sani said.

"The group is most likely to want to attach some kind of conditions to the girls being released, such as the freeing of some of their own prisoners."

Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president, yesterday optimistically pledged the safe return of the girls, who were taken more than three weeks ago from their boarding school in the lawless Borno region in the north of the country. It is thought some of them have already died, and there are fears that scores of others have been trafficked into Cameroon.

Mr Jonathan thanked delegates, including Britain, the US, France and China, at the World Economic Forum in Abuja for their offers of help to rescue the girls. He claimed that the mass abduction would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, saying: "I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria."

France said yesterday that it would station about 3,000 troops in neighbouring Mali, Niger and Chad to help tackle militants in the Sahel region.

It followed Britain's announcement on Wednesday that it was to send a small team of experts to Nigeria "as soon as possible". The team is expected to concentrate on planning and giving advice to local officials rather than any ground operation to free the girls, although Downing Street is also understood to have ordered three locally based liaison officers from the SAS to advise the rescue mission.

As the international community offered its support to Nigeria, celebrities and politicians around the world voiced their outrage over the abduction, posting messages on social media with the hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls.

US First Lady Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl, and the singers Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis were among those who gave their support to the campaign, which encourages military intervention to recover the girls.

Malala, who was shot by the Taliban after becoming a proponent of education for Muslim girls, said that the kidnapped pupils were her "sisters".

Meanwhile, further details emerged of an attack earlier this week by Boko Haram in the remote town of Gamboru Ngala, close to the border with Cameroon, in which up to 100 people are believed to have been killed.

Musa Abba, a local man, said Islamist fighters who stormed the town driving armoured trucks and motorbikes left it "littered" with dead bodies. Ahmed Zanna, a local senator, claimed the town had been left unguarded because soldiers had been redeployed north towards Lake Chad in an effort to rescue the kidnapped girls. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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