The U.S. will send a team to help Nigeria locate more than 200 schoolgirls seized by Islamist militants three weeks ago, amid a growing global outcry over their kidnapping.
President Barack Obama said the U.S. team will combine military, law enforcement and other agencies “to identify where in fact these girls might be and to provide them help.” In an interview on ABC television yesterday, the president called the plight of the girls “heartbreaking” and “outrageous,” and said Boko Haram, the Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the attack, has been “killing people ruthlessly for many years now.”
Reuben Abati, a spokesman for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, confirmed in an e-mailed statement that Nigeria accepted assistance including “the deployment of U.S. security personnel and assets to work with their Nigerian counterparts in the search and rescue operation,”
Video: Militants Vow to Sell Kidnapped Nigerian Girls
Gunmen on April 14 raided dormitories in an all-girls secondary school in remote Chibok in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, and drove off in trucks with more than 200 students. Boko Haram said it had taken the girls captive because they were being educated instead of getting married.
“We would also give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video released this week.
Obama told ABC that the kidnapping “may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization.”
About 275,000 people have signed an online petition demanding action to rescue the girls, and there have been rallies seeking their release in cities including New York and Washington as well as Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, and Lagos, its commercial hub.
Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin,” is waging a violent campaign to impose Islamic law in Africa’s biggest oil producer and most populous country of about 170 million people. The five-year insurgency has claimed more than 4,000 lives and forced almost half a million people to flee their homes, according to the International Crisis Group.
Another group of eight girls between 12 and 15 years of age were seized by gunmen in Gwoza, another village in Borno, on May 4, Maina Musa, a resident, said in a phone interview yesterday. Security officials couldn’t immediately be reached to confirm the report.
The U.S. will send a team that includes military personnel and experts in hostage negotiations, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington yesterday. She said members of the team can also “help facilitate information sharing and provide victim assistance.”
All 20 women members of the U.S. Senate signed a letter yesterday to Obama condemning the mass kidnapping and urging his administration to pursue additional international sanctions against Boko Haram, according to a release from the office of Senator Susan Collins.
Collins, a Maine Republican, told CNN in an interview that U.S. special forces should be used to help rescue the girls. “They’re being sold into slavery, forced into marriages, required to convert,” she told CNN. “This is just horrible.”
The exact location of the girls isn’t yet known by security forces working to free them, Jonathan said on May 4, speaking publicly for the first time about the abduction.
The president, who hasn’t said if he will run in elections next year, and his government have suffered a backlash because of the abductions, as well as bomb attacks in Abuja that killed more than 90 people in the past month, said Natznet Tesfay, senior manager for Africa at IHS Country Risk in London.
“Additional attacks further south than Abuja could significantly undermine Jonathan’s presumed re-election ambitions,” she said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The attacks have also raised security concerns as Nigeria prepares to host the World Economic Forum on Africa, which starts in Abuja today.
There may be more demonstrations in the next days over the girls’ detention and Boko Haram’s threat to sell them, Peter Sharwood-Smith, West Africa manager for security company Drum Cussac, said in a statement e-mailed from Lagos.
“Given the heightened security posture in the capital for the WEF event and expected presence of foreign dignitaries, any protests are likely be swiftly dispersed by security forces,” he said.
Nigeria, which is due to hold general elections in February, is almost evenly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.