May 27 (Bloomberg) -- Nigeria’s military knows where more than 200 schoolgirls abducted last month by Islamist militants are being held and is studying how to rescue them, Chief of Defense Staff Air Marshal Alex Badeh said.
“The good news for the parents of the girls is that we know where they are, but we cannot tell you,” Badeh told human rights activists yesterday in the capital, Abuja, in remarks broadcast on Radio Nigeria today. “We want our girls back, I can tell you that our military can and will do it. But we can’t kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.”
Boko Haram, which Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan described as the “al-Qaeda of West Africa,” abducted the girls from the northeastern town of Chibok on April 14. The U.S. and U.K. sent teams to Nigeria to help the government find the schoolgirls, and Israel and France have pledged assistance. The U.S. is conducting manned surveillance flights and using a drone in the search, and the U.K. has offered a Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft.
Asked about the assertion that the girls had been located, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today, “We don’t have independent information from the United States to support these reports.”
“We have consistently said that locating the girls is of course the first critical step and that we’re actively working to support the Nigerian government’s effort to do just that,” Psaki told reporters in Washington.
The authorities may struggle to rescue the girls because Boko Haram fighters can hide in their strongholds in rough terrain along porous borders, said Peter Sharwood-Smith, West Africa manager for security company Drum Cussac.
“A rescue operation would be very difficult for anybody, especially as it’s very unlikely the girls are all in the same spot,” he said today by phone from Lagos, the commercial capital. “If they attempt a rescue it could all go wrong, but perhaps they can find some sort of negotiated solution.”
Abubakar Shekau, the leader Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin,” has threatened in video messages to sell the girls in “markets,” marry them off and hold them until the Nigerian government frees imprisoned members of his group.
On May 14, Jonathan told Mark Simmonds, Britain’s Minister for Africa who was visiting Abuja, that he wouldn’t enter talks about swapping Boko Haram detainees for the girls.
“What’s needed is an effort to find intermediaries that are acceptable to both sides, who can convince the captors that it’s in their best interests to release the girls,” Simon Fordham, a partner at security consultancy BGN Risk and retired British Army Colonel, said by phone from London today. “There needs to be an acknowledgment that there are social and economic issues involved.”
Politicians from the three northeastern states under a state of emergency Jonathan declared a year ago will also need to play a role, he said.
Boko Haram emerged in northern Nigeria in 2002, accusing the Nigerian authorities of corruption, misrule and oppression that left the country’s mainly Muslim north poorer than the predominantly Christian south. The insurgency intensified seven years later when the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody.
“The government will eventually be pressured into making deals with Boko Haram away from media,” Murtala Touray, senior Africa analyst at IHS Country Risk in London, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Jonathan and his administration have been criticized for failing to combat Boko Haram.
The conflict between the insurgents and the Nigerian security forces has killed at least 2,000 people this year, Amnesty International said May 9.
“I’d imagine they are trying to find a form of negotiation that doesn’t involve releasing Boko Haram fighters,” Sharwood-Smith said. “I believe there are still some Boko Haram wives the government has in detention, and Boko Haram also need funds.”
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