Boko Haram demands release of fighters for girls


THE U.S. TEAM

A U.S. team assisting the Nigerian government in the search for girls abducted by terrorists consists of some 30 people drawn from the State and Defense departments, the White House said Monday. Among them are five State Department officials, two strategic communications experts, a civil security expert and a regional medical support officer. Four FBI officials with expertise in safe recovery, negotiations and preventing future kidnappings are also part of the group. The Pentagon said 16 Defense Department personnel were on the team, including planners and advisers who were already in Nigeria and have been redirected to assist the government.

Associated Press

Under the guns of their captors, dozens of barefoot girls sit huddled together wearing gray Muslim veils as they chant Quranic verses in Arabic. Some Christians among them say they have converted to Islam.

“I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured,” the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist network threatens, an assault rifle slung across his chest.

A video released by the group Monday offered the first public glimpse of what it claimed were some of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped a month ago. The girls’ plight has spurred a global movement to secure their freedom.

It is not known how many suspected Boko Haram members are detained by security forces. Hundreds were killed last month when leader Abubakar Shekau’s fighters stormed the military’s main northeastern barracks in Maiduguri, the terror group’s birthplace and the headquarters of a year-old military state of emergency to put down the 5-year-old Islamic uprising.

In the video, two of the girls were singled out for questioning.

“Why have you become a Muslim?” one girl, who looked to be in her early teens, is asked.

“The reason why I became a Muslim is because the path we are on is not the right path,” the girl says, nervously shifting from side to side, her eyes darting back and forth.

“We should enter the right path so that Allah will be happy with us,” adds the girl, who says her name had been changed to Halima because she has converted from Christianity to Islam. Like the other girls, she wears a bulky gray hijab that covers her body from head to toe, revealing only her face.

A second girl, who appears to be in her mid-teens, is asked if she or any of the others have been mistreated. No, she says, adding that they have experienced nothing “except righteousness.”

As the girls seen on the video chant Islamic verses, some clasp their hands together in what appears to be the Christian style of prayer before quickly turning their palms upward, as Muslim worshippers do.

The girls’ families have said most of those seized April 15 from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok are Christians.

It was impossible to fully authenticate the video, though parents were trying to turn on a generator in Chibok, hoping to watch the video and identify their daughters, said a town leader, Pogu Bitrus.

“There’s an atmosphere of hope — hope that these girls are alive, whether they have been forced to convert to Islam or not,” he said by telephone. “We want to be able to say, ‘These are our girls.’”

The video shows about 100 girls, indicating they may have been broken up into smaller groups, as some reports have indicated.

Fifty-three girls managed to escape and 276 remain missing, police say.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. intelligence experts were “combing over every detail” of the latest recording. He said administration officials have seen the video and “have no reason to question its authenticity.”

The Nigerian government said in a statement that it was reviewing the video and would “continue to explore all options for the release and safe return of our girls back to their homes.”

In a video last week, Shekau threatened to sell the girls into slavery.

The latest video came through channels that have provided previous messages from Shekau, who speaks in the video in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria. Wearing camouflage fatigues, he clutches an assault rifle in the footage, which was imprinted with the Boko Haram insignia — a Quran resting on two crossed assault rifles — and below a black jihadi flag.

The United States put a $7 million ransom on Shekau last year.

The mass abductions and failure of Nigeria’s government and military to rescue the girls have aroused outrage at home and abroad. Last week, Nigeria belatedly accepted offers of help from the United States, Britain and other nations.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s acceptance Sunday of help from Israel, which plans to send a counter-terrorism team, has angered some Muslims.

A leading Islamic scholar, Ahmed Mahmud-Gumi, warned in a statement that accepting help from Israel would “turn Nigeria into another global arena and battlefield for the filthy neocolonial squabbles by interest groups.” On Saturday he said allowing Western soldiers onto Nigerian soil could make the country a new magnet for foreign Islamic militants who want to confront the United States and others.

French President Francois Hollande hsa invited Jonathan and leaders from neighboring Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, as well as representatives of Britain, the EU and the United States, to a summit on Saturday to focus on Boko Haram, terrorism and insecurity in West Africa.

A French official said Jonathan had agreed to attend. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the gathering have not been finalized.