Nigeria’s military claims it has located almost 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by militants, but military chiefs and President Goodluck Jonathan have not agreed on how to free them. Military officials said use of force risks the kidnappers might kill their hostages.
The country’s defense chief, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, announced Monday night the military had located the girls, but offered no details or a way forward. “We can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back,” he said.
Previous military attempts to free hostages led their abductors to kill them, including two foreign engineers in Sokoto in March 2012.
Asked by reporters where they had found the girls, Badeh refused to elaborate.
Ruling out force seems to mean negotiation is the only option. But a human rights activist close to the negotiators told the Associated Press a plan to exchanged the girls for detained extremists fell through because Jonathan refused the deal at the last minute. The activist, who is not permitted to speak to the press and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the girls would have been freed last week Monday. Britain’s Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, said two weeks ago the Nigerian leader told him categorically he would not consider a prisoner swap.
Community leader Pogu Bitrus of Chibok, the town from which the girls were abducted on April 15, said authorities are speaking with “discordant voices” and the president appears under pressure to negotiate.
“The pressure is there if his own lieutenants are saying one (thing),” Bitrus said. “Because if they cannot use force, the deduction is that there must be negotiation. And if their commander-in-chief, the president, is saying that he will not negotiate, then they are not on the same page.”
Jonathan was forced this month to accept international help. American planes have been searching for the girls, and Britain, France, Israel, and other countries have sent experts in surveillance and hostage negotiation.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said the department cannot confirm the reports about the girls at this point.
A Boko Haram video has shown some of the kidnapped girls reciting Quranic verses in Arabic and two of them explaining why they had converted from Christianity to Islam in captivity. Unverified reports have indicated two may have died of snake bites, that some have been forced to marry their abductors, and that some may have been taken across borders into Chad and Cameroon.
Jonathan’s reluctance to accept offered help for weeks is seen as unwillingness to have outsiders looking in on what is considered a very corrupt military force. Amnesty International said military officials failed to act even though they were warned hours before Boko Haram militants staged the abductions.
Similar accusations against Nigeria’s security forces emerged after the twin bomb attacks in the central city of Jos left more than 130 people dead on May 20.
Read more of WORLD’s coverage of the attacks.