Monday, May 19, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Boko Haram soft-pedals, drops demand for release

LAGOS—Boko Haram, which abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Borno a month ago, has backed down on its demand for a release of its top commanders by government before the abducted girls could be released.

It has also emerged that President Goodluck Jonathan has banned all his ministers and presidential spokespersons from commenting on any issue relating to the campaign by the Federal Government to rescue the girls. This came as the Defence headquarters warned against unauthorised visits to the areas of operation by tourists and journalists, saying such venture was risky.

The Telegraph of London, in an exclusive report, quoted sources close to the militant Islamist group as saying that the sect has abandoned its demands for its top commanders to be released that could see “gradual” release of the schoolgirls as early as next week.

In a significant concession, the group was said to have abandoned demands for its top commanders to be released, seemingly aware that this would be politically impossible for the Federal Government.

The Telegraph first reported details of Boko Haram’s offer of an imminent prisoners exchange last Tuesday, when sources close to some of the militants’ families said that a senior Islamic cleric from the northern part of the country would be appointed to mediate on its behalf with the government.

According to the Telegraph, the cleric has since been joined by a former aide to one of the group’s founders. No man has been named, possibly for their safety. While the Federal Government has insisted that it is not willing to enter prisoners swap negotiations, the source claimed that dialogue had already been going on in secret for several days.

“Contrary to the public rejection of any swap deal by the Nigerian government, there are some on-the-ground talks taking place,” the Telegraph quoted its source as saying adding that “an agreement was reached about two or three days ago in principle to start releasing some prisoners.”

He said that among the prisoners that the group wanted released would be wives and families of Boko Haram fighters, some of whom have been taken into custody by the Federal Government in order to exert emotional pressure on the fighters. “The group also has a list of lower-level fighters that it wants released as well, but they are not high-profile ones,” the source added.

He said that in exchange, Boko Haram was willing to start a “gradual” release of around 100 of the girls – possibly beginning as early as the coming week. “Depending on how the other side responds, the girls will be released in small groups. They will be left at a certain safe location, and the authorities will then be told as to where they can pick them up from.”

Details of the offer emerged as officials investigated reports that Boko Haram was responsible for the kidnapping of up to 10 Chinese workers in neighbouring Cameroon, where the group now also has a presence.

On Saturday, Nigeria and its neighbours, including Cameroon, Benin, Chad and Niger declared “war” on Boko Haram after an international summit in Paris hosted by the French President, François Hollande.

The offensive will involve co-ordination of surveillance efforts aimed at finding the girls, the sharing of intelligence, the tightening of border controls, and a regional counter-terrorism strategy with Western help.

The Telegraph source said Boko Haram leaders had been upset by the declaration of “war” at the Paris summit, and that this could encourage it to withdraw its offer.

At the summit, the countries agreed to forge a regional counter-terrorism strategy with expertise and training support from Britain, France, the European Union and the United States.

Britain will host a follow-up meeting to discuss the Boko Haram crisis next month. It is thought that the kidnapped schoolgirls are being held somewhere in either North-East Nigeria or across the border in Cameroon.

China confirms abduction of 10 nationals

The Chinese embassy in Cameroon confirmed that 10 of its workers had gone missing on Friday at a site near the town of Waza, 12 miles from the Nigerian border and close to the Sambisa forest, a Boko Haram stronghold.

Lu Qingjiang, the embassy’s political counsellor, said that one Chinese worker was also injured in the attack, China’s Xinhua state news agency reported.

Ten vehicles belonging to China’s state-run construction company Sinohydro, which is repairing roads in Cameroon, were also taken, Xinhua said.

Mr Lu called on the Cameroonian authorities to “not put the lives of Chinese nationals missing in danger in case actions of liberation be launched”, Xinhua said.

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