The U.S. is conducting manned surveillance flights and using a drone to help search for more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped last month by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
Army Lieutenant-Colonel Myles Caggins confirmed the use of U.S. planes in efforts to locate the girls, who were abducted from the town of Chibok in the northeastern state of Borno on April 14. In addition, a Global Hawk drone made by Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC:US) is assisting in the search, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing the addition of the unmanned aircraft.
The U.S. has joined countries including the U.K., China and Israel in offering to help Nigeria rescue the girls from Boko Haram. The group has conducted a violent campaign since 2009 to impose Islamic law in Africa’s top oil producer, leaving more than 4,000 people dead and forcing almost half a million to flee their homes, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
General David Rodriguez, head of the U.S. Africa Command, is in Nigeria this week, though he’s “not personally overseeing any search,” Caggins of the army said yesterday in an e-mail.
There are limits to how closely the American military can work with Nigeria, U.S. officials said. A law called the Leahy Amendment bars direct aid to any foreign military that abuses human rights. Secretary of State John Kerry last year said there were “credible allegations that Nigerian forces are committing gross human rights violations.”
It’s possible to bypass the Leahy Amendment, either by covertly providing U.S. intelligence information to non-military Nigerian officials or by giving it to intermediaries such as the British or Israelis who also are assisting in the search, said one U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In March, Amnesty International said Nigerian security forces have carried out “uncontrolled reprisals” against Boko Haram, particularly in response to the group’s attack on the army’s Giwa barracks in Borno a month before the school raid. The Nigerian military said it would investigate the allegations.
The kidnapping sparked international outrage, and a global campaign to free the girls has been joined by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Australia’s government said today it plans to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, according to an e-mailed statement.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was criticized for not speaking publicly about the issue for almost three weeks. Jonathan yesterday asked parliament to extend a year-old state of emergency in three northeastern states where Boko Haram, which means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, has focused its attacks.
Nigeria said this week it’s considering a prisoner exchange with Boko Haram after the militant group threatened to hold the schoolgirls until its detained members are freed.
An exchange is “part of the options available to us,” said Mike Omeri, director of the National Orientation Agency which explains government policies to the public. “If it is necessary that we use whatever kind of action to get our girls out of captivity, we will.”
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, made the demand in a video sent to reporters on May 12 that shows about 130 girls reciting lines from the Koran.
Staff and parents at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok have identified 77 girls in the video, according to Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima’s office.
“These girls have become our property, whatever we wish, we do with them,” Shekau said in the video, speaking in Hausa. “These girls remain with us until the Nigerian government releases our brothers and sisters being held in various detention facilities across the country.”
In a previous video, Shekau had threatened to sell the girls in “markets” and marry them off.
A month after the kidnapping, it’s now almost impossible to mount a rescue operation, said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The girls have probably been split up, sold into slavery or taken across Nigeria’s borders, the official said. Even if they were still together, a rescue operation against their heavily armed and experienced kidnappers in a remote area would risk killing a substantial number of the hostages, he said.
Enoch Mark, whose daughter was among those abducted, said today that the authorities should give in to the kidnappers’ demands for an exchange.
“The federal government should yield to the request of Boko Haram and release the prisoners in exchange for our daughters,” Mark, 47, said by phone from Chibok. “With this development I think the end of Boko Haram has come.”
Nigerian authorities haven’t released official figures on the number of jailed Boko Haram prisoners. Military spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Boko Haram carried out the school raid on the same day it detonated a car bomb on the outskirts of Abuja that killed at least 75 people, the city’s worst bomb attack. That blast was followed by another bomb nearby on May 1.
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