U.S. Planes Search For Kidnapped Schoolgirls

•Shekau issuing threat in a new video

•Shekau issuing threat in a video

The United States said it is flying “manned” missions over Nigeria in search of over 200 abducted schoolgirls, after the Lagos government dismissed a prisoner-swap offer from the Boko Haram kidnappers.

“We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets over Nigeria with the government’s permission,” a senior US administration official said Monday.

The official declined to be named, and it was not immediately clear what kind of aircraft were being deployed, nor where they were based.

Boko Haram’s leader said in a new video obtained by AFP Monday that the abducted schoolgirls would only be released if the government freed militant fighters from custody.

Abubakar Shekau made the claim in a 27-minute video, which apparently showed about 130 of the girls who were kidnapped from their school in the remote northeastern town of Chibok nearly a month ago.

The militant leader said the girls in the video had converted to Islam and all were shown in Muslim dress, reciting the first chapter of the Koran and praying at an undisclosed location.

Asked if the government would reject Shekau’s suggestion, Interior Minister Abba Moro told AFP: “Of course.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US intelligence experts were “combing through every detail of the video for clues that might help ongoing efforts to secure the release of the girls.”

Their disappearance has triggered global outrage, in part due to a social media campaign that has won the support of high-profile figures including US First Lady Michelle Obama and Pope Francis.

A total of 276 students were abducted on April 14 from Chibok, which has a sizeable Christian community. Police say 223 are still missing.

Nigeria’s government has been criticised for its slow response to the kidnapping, but has been forced into action as a result of international pressure.

President Goodluck Jonathan has accepted help from the United States, Britain, France, China and Israel, which have sent specialist teams to help in the search effort.

French President Francois Hollande has also called for a west Africa security summit to discuss the Boko Haram threat, which could be held as early as Saturday.

The United States and Britain have been invited, he said.

The latest footage shows the girls in black and grey full-length hijabs, sitting on scrubland near trees.

Three of them are shown being interviewed — two said they were Christian and had converted while one said she was Muslim.

All three pronounced their belief in Islam dispassionately to the camera, sometimes looking down at the ground and apparently under duress.

Most of the group behind them were seated cross-legged on the ground. The girls appeared calm and one said they had not been harmed.

There was no indication of when the video was taken, although the quality is better than on previous occasions and at one point an armed man is seen in shot with a hand-held video camera.

•Shekau issuing threat in a new video
•Shekau issuing threat in a new video

Shekau does not appear in the same scene. Instead, he is seen dressed in combat fatigues, carrying an automatic weapon in front of a lime-green canvas backdrop.

Speaking in his native Hausa language as well as Arabic, he restated his claim of responsibility for the kidnappings, and said the girls were converting to Islam.

“These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with… we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims,” he said.

“There are still others who have not converted and are holding on to your belief. There are many of them,” he added.

“Only Allah knows how many women we are holding, the infidels who Allah commands us to hold.”

On the prisoner release, Shekau said Boko Haram’s brothers in arms had been held in prison for up to five years and suggested that the girls would be released if the fighters were freed.

“We will never release them (the girls) until after you release our brethren,” he said.

Boko Haram has been waging an increasingly deadly insurgency in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north since 2009, attacking schools teaching a “Western” curriculum, churches and government targets.

Civilians, though, have borne the brunt of recent violence, with more than 1,500 killed this year alone while tens of thousands have been displaced after their homes and businesses were razed.

Boko Haram has used kidnapping of women and young girls in the past and Shekau indicated that more were being held. Eleven girls were abducted from the Gwoza area of Borno state on May 4.

Jonathan has previously said that he believed the kidnapped students were still in Nigeria and would be freed soon.

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There have been fears that the girls may have been taken into neighbouring Chad or Cameroon, from where Boko Haram is said to have launched attacks in the northeast and may have camps.

Nigeria’s army is currently concentrating its efforts on the Sambisa forest of Borno state while international assistance involves specialist surveillance and intelligence teams.

Meanwhile, conditions set out by Boko Haram’s leader for the release of the Nigerian schoolgirls held hostage by the Islamists may lead to a deal that sees the girls freed, analysts said Monday.

In a new video obtained by AFP, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau said the girls may be released once Nigeria frees all the Boko Haram prisoners it has in custody.

The government rejected that proposal and said it was not interested in any conditions dictated by the extremists who have killed thousands in a five-year uprising and claimed the shocking April 14 mass abduction in the northeastern town of Chibok, Borno state.

On the subject of talking to Boko Haram, Nigeria has sent contradictory messages in the past.

Months after claiming that dialogue with the Islamists was impossible, President Goodluck Jonathan last year tasked a high-level panel with negotiating a ceasefire, an offer ultimately rejected by Shekau.

Shehu Sani, an expert on Boko Haram and religious violence in northern Nigeria, wrote last week that the Islamists were likely to demand a prisoner release in exchange for teenage girls seized from their school in Chibok.

“A deal can be reached with the insurgents on this issue,” Sani told AFP.

Nigeria’s military has been accused of rounding up thousands of Boko Haram suspects, including women and children, and holding them in atrocious conditions that have been criticised by rights groups.

Shekau has also made prisoner exchange demands before. An early example came in 2011, when Boko Haram wrote an open letter to the governor of northern Kano state, demanding the release of detainees.

Sani said Boko Haram detainees can be divided into three categories: senior insurgent commanders, foot soldiers and families members of Boko Haram leaders.

The government should release members of this third group “as a gesture”, provided it was tied to the release of some of the Chibok hostages, Sani said.

Elizabeth Donnelly, of the Africa Programme at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, agreed that a prisoner-for-hostage swap was “worth exploring”.

“They need to take any opportunity they may have because this is about the lives of more than 200 children,” she said.

Donnelly noted an important shift between Shekau’s first video on the hostages, released on May 5, where he boasted about the abduction, threatened to sell the girls as “slaves” and made no mention of their possible release.

While the threat to sell the girls was repeated on Monday, Shekau in the latest video also said that Boko Haram “will never release them (the girls) until after you release our brethren”.

The floating of this condition may be a sign that Boko Haram was “reconsidering its position”, Donnelly said. “There does seem to be a reappraisal.”

Boko Haram’s insurgency, which has so often targeted defenceless civilians, often appears totally “indiscriminate” but “there is an element of this group which is well-organised and thinks strategically”, she added.

Outrage over the mass abductions has spread across the globe, with prominent personalities ranging from US First Lady Michelle Obama to Pope Francis calling for the girls immediate release.

Britain, China, France, the United States and Israel have all offered various levels of military and security cooperation to secure the girls’ release.

Boko Haram’s position may have been influenced by the offers of support from world powers, which is unprecedented in the five-year conflict.

The logistical complications of trying to hide 223 teenage hostages amid a ramped-up search operation may have also forced the Islamists to look for a negotiated deal.

“It is possible that they realised they hadn’t really thought through their strategy,” said Donnelly.

Sani called on Nigeria to quickly form a panel that includes senior Muslim clerics from the north, working with Boko Haram detainees to forge a formal offer.

When pursuing ceasefire talks last year, Nigeria first reached out to detainees to discuss how a truce should be structured.

Donnelly said the government should work with northern civil society actors who in the past were used as intermediaries with Boko Haram.

She recalled the 2013 kidnapping of seven members of a French family, including four children, from northern Cameroon, which was claimed by Boko Haram.

While various governments ruled out making a deal with Boko Haram, “there were negotiations and a payment was made” that led to the family’s release, said Donnelly.