'I would rather daughter died than convert to Islam'
Nigeria hinted last night that it would consider bowing to demands from Boko Haram terrorists to release jailed militants in exchange for the schoolgirls kidnapped by the group last month.
The possibility of a prisoner swap emerged after the Islamist group released a video showing about 130 of the nearly 300 girls in captivity, gathered by a tree in a patch of bushland.
The video was the first evidence that the group has the girls and was accompanied by a message from its leader, Abubakar Shekau, saying: "We will never release them until after you release our brethren."
Initially, the Nigerian government appeared to dismiss any suggestion of a deal, with Abba Moro, the interior minister, saying that it would "of course" refuse to negotiate.
But in a subsequent news conference, Mike Omeri, a ministry of information official, said: "The government of Nigeria is considering all options towards freeing the girls and reuniting them with their parents."
The mixed signals from the Nigerian authorities appeared to reflect mounting doubts as to the government's ability to pull off any kind of rescue.
Western officials helping in the hunt said that little real progress has been made on the search, because it covers such a vast area. Even if the girls were located, the Nigerian security forces are unlikely to be able to mount a rescue without the hostages being killed by the group. A raid by British or American special forces might well have a similar outcome, and in any event, both countries are keen not to have their troops involved.
The latest video, thought to have been shot in the forests of north-east Nigeria, shows about 130 girls in black and grey full-length hijabs sitting amid semi-arid scrubland, reciting verses from the Koran and holding their hands aloft in prayer.
In one segment, Shekau claims that the girls, who are mainly Christians, have converted to Islam. In another, a girl in her early teens looks fearful as an unseen interviewer asks her to explain her conversion. "The reason why I became a Muslim is because the path we are on is not the right path," she says. "We should enter the right path so that Allah will be happy with us."
US intelligence experts said they were studying the video closely for any clues as to where it had been shot. Botanists, meteorologists and geographers are likely to scrutinise the trees, soil and plants in the clearing where the girls were filmed to establish an idea of possible spots where it could – and could not – have been filmed.
The video was condemned by parents of the girls, with one father saying that he would rather his daughter lost her life than see her used in a prisoner exchange or forcibly converted to Islam.
"I am not really interested in what Boko Haram's demands are," said the father, whose identity this newspaper is withholding to avoid compromising his daughter's safety. "My daughter is a Christian, she will never change. I would rather she died as a princess than convert to Islam.
"I don't want a prisoner exchange either – our daughters are not prisoners, and they should not be exchanged for anyone. Let the government try to rescue them.
"If they have a prisoner exchange, that will look like the government is giving into Boko Haram, and it will just encourage them to take more hostages. They will never stop."
Later, racked by emotion, he had changed his mind. "Anything to get my daughter back," he said.
The girls, thought to number up about 220 in all, were abducted from a boarding school in the remote town of Chibok in north-east Nigeria on April 14. Last night, parents in the area were trying to turn on a generator, hoping to watch the video and identify their daughters.
Bu Shehu Sani, a Nigerian civil rights activist who carried out face-to-face peace talks with Boko Haram two years ago, urged the government to press ahead with a prisoner exchange "while the window is open".
He said: "These insurgents fall into three categories. The high-ranking ones, their foot soldiers, and then their families, some of whom have been put in jail by the security forces as a way of exerting emotional pressure. The government should release the last category in exchange for these girls."
He said that no prisoner exchanges had been done in the past, but added that Boko Haram had freed many comrades during attacks on the Nigerian government's poorly guarded jails.
In March, a number were released from Giwa Barracks, a military prison in the north-east city of Maiduguri, after an attack by hundreds of Boko Haram fighters. (© Daily Telegraph, London)