By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
ABUJA (Reuters) – The leader of the Nigerian Islamist rebel group Boko Haram has said he will release more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his fighters last month in exchange for prisoners, according to a video seen by Agence France-Presse on Monday.
Around 100 girls wearing full veils and praying are shown in an undisclosed location in the 17-minute video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks, according to the French news agency.
Militants fighting for an Islamist state stormed a secondary school in the northeastern village of Chibok on April 14 and seized 276 girls who were taking exams. Some managed to escape but around 200 remain missing.
The group has killed thousands since 2009 and destabilized parts of northeast Nigeria, the country with Africa’s largest population and biggest economy.
The attack has provoked global expressions of outrage, and concern about the fate of the girls deepened when Shekau threatened in a video released earlier this month to sell the girls “in the market”.
Nigeria said on Saturday it had deployed two army divisions to the hunt for the girls while several nations including the United States, Britain, Israel and France have offered assistance or sent experts.
The Nigerian government has been sharply criticized for its response to the abductions but President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday that international military and intelligence assistance made him optimistic about finding the girls.
French President Francois Hollande on Sunday offered to host a summit in Paris next Saturday with Nigeria and its neighbors focused on the militant group.
The leaders of Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger might also attend and Britain, the European Union and the United States would probably be represented as well, Hollande’s aides said.
The mass abduction of schoolgirls has touched a chord around the world, and triggered a support campaign using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
MICHELLE OBAMA OUTRAGED OVER KIDNAPPING
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama took the rare step of delivering her husband President Barack Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday to express outrage over the kidnapping of some 200 girls in Nigeria last month.
“Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night,” Mrs. Obama said in the address.
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.”
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Friday he believed the girls, abducted by militant Islamist group Boko Haram, were still in his country.
Militants stormed a secondary school in the village of Chibok, near the Cameroon border, on April 14, and kidnapped the girls, who were taking exams at the time. Fifty have since escaped, but more than 200 remain with the insurgents.
The United States offered this week to send a team of experts to Nigeria to support the government’s response effort, which has been criticized for being slow.
“I want you to know that Barack has directed our government to do everything possible to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to find these girls and bring them home,” Mrs. Obama said. “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams – and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”
The first lady noted that the school where the girls were abducted had been closed recently because of terrorist threats, but the girls insisted on coming back to take exams.
“They were so determined to move to the next level of their education…so determined to one day build careers of their own and make their families and communities proud,” she said.
“And what happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident. It’s a story we see every day as girls around the world risk their lives to pursue their ambitions.”