Militants 'ready' to release abducted schoolgirls
Boko Haram is prepared to start releasing up to half of the kidnapped schoolgirls in the coming days after dropping demands for the release of top commanders in talks with the Nigerian government, sources close to the group have said.
The militant Islamist group, which abducted more than 200 girls a month ago, is willing to conduct a "gradual" release of its hostages in return for the freeing of Boko Haram prisoners in Nigerian jails, it was claimed.
In a significant concession, the group has abandoned demands for its top commanders to be released, seemingly aware that this would be politically impossible for the Nigerian government.
Details of Boko Haram's offer of an imminent prisoner exchange were first reported last Tuesday, when sources close to some of the militants' families said a senior Islamic cleric from northern Nigeria would be appointed to mediate on its behalf with the government.
The cleric has since been joined by a former aide to one of the group's founders. Neither man has been named, possibly for their own safety.
While the Nigerian government has insisted that it is not willing to enter prisoner-swap negotiations, the source claimed dialogue had been going on in secret for days.
"Contrary to the public rejection of any swap deal by the Nigerian government, there are some on-the-ground talks taking place," the source said.
"An agreement was reached about two or three days ago in principle to start releasing some prisoners."
He said that among the prisoners who the group wanted released would be wives and families of Boko Haram fighters, some of whom have been taken into custody by the Nigerian government in order to exert emotional pressure on the fighters.
"The group also has a list of lower-level fighters that it wants released as well, but they are not high-profile ones," the source added.
He said that in exchange, Boko Haram was willing to start a "gradual" release of about 100 of the schoolgirls – possibly beginning as early as the coming week.
"Depending on how the other side responds, the girls will be released in small groups. They will be left at a certain safe location and the authorities will then be told as to where they can pick them up from," the source explained.
A spokesman for the Nigerian government said that "there are all kinds of claims about efforts at negotiations, some of them being floated around in the media, but we do not think the media is the right place for us to have this discussion".
Details of the offer emerged as officials investigated reports that it was responsible for the kidnapping of up to 10 Chinese workers in Cameroon, where the group now also has a presence.
On Saturday, Nigeria and its neighbours, including Cameroon, Benin, Chad, and Niger, declared "war" on Boko Haram after an international summit in Paris hosted by Francois Hollande, the French president.
The offensive will involve co-ordination of surveillance efforts aimed at finding the girls, the sharing of intelligence, the tightening of border controls, and a regional counter-terrorism strategy with Western help. The source said Boko Haram leaders had been upset by the declaration of "war" at the Paris summit, and that this could encourage it to withdraw its offer.
It is thought the kidnapped girls are being held in north-east Nigeria or in Cameroon. (© Daily Telegraph, London)