ABUJA: Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has ruled out the release of Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the freedom of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the militants a month ago.
Britain’s Africa minister Mark Simmonds, in Nigeria for talks about the international rescue mission, told reporters on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) that he raised the issue with Jonathan during a meeting in Abuja.
“I did discuss this with the president and he made it very clear that there will be no negotiation with Boko Haram that involves a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners”, he told reporters.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau suggested in a video released on Monday that he may be prepared to release the girls if Nigeria freed militants held in the country’s jails.
Interior Minister Abba Moro immediately rejected the plan, telling Agence France-Presse that the Islamist group, which has waged a deadly insurgency in northeast Nigeria since 2009, could not dictate terms.
A door appeared to have opened to discussions about the girls on Tuesday, when special duties minister Taminu Turaki indicated that the teenagers’ freedom could up for discussion.
Simmonds said Jonathan had now ruled that out, adding that the president was still prepared to fulfill his pledge of talking to the extremists about wider issues to end the violence.
International search and support
The rejection of a prisoner swap came as international powers ramped up the search effort, including with the use of US military surveillance drones and manned aircraft.
The Pentagon said it had deployed the robotic Global Hawk, which flies at high altitude, and the manned MC-12, a propeller plane heavily used in Afghanistan.
Both types of aircraft are “unarmed” and strictly being used for surveillance.
However, the data is not yet being shared with the Nigerians because Washington is still working out an agreement to govern the sharing of intelligence, Colonel Steven Warren told reporters
Hawkish Republican Senator John McCain said the Pentagon should consider acting unilaterally and sending US special forces in to rescue the girls.
He mocked the capabilities of Nigeria’s military and said any special forces entry to deal with the Boko Haram “animals” should be done without their knowledge.
US military officials said privately that a rescue mission would be fraught with massive risks and dangers, and that it currently was not deemed an option.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament a Sentinel surveillance aircraft and a military team would be sent to Abuja to assist in the search.
France, Israel and China are also involved, with the hunt focused on the Sambisa forest area of Borno state, although there are fears the girls may have been split up and taken to neighboring Chad or Cameroon.
Worldwide interest has been growing in the plight of the missing girls after 276 teenagers were abducted from their school in the remote northeastern town of Chibok on April 14. A total of 223 are still missing.
Jonathan’s office said he had received “solidarity calls” from the prime ministers of Algeria, Abdelmalek Sellal, and Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif.
In Paris, President Francois Hollande’s office said the leaders of Benin, Cameroon, Niger and Chad would meet with Jonathan in the French capital on Saturday for a security summit.
Representatives from the European Union, Britain and the United States would also attend, the Elysee said.