A hostage negotiator in direct contact with the kidnappers of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria tells Channel 4 News their safe release is "within reach", but that their fate rests on a knife-edge.
Photo (clockwise, from top left): President Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, Chebok secondary school sign, parents of kidnpapped children
"The girls, we believe, are alive but they have been moved from the location to which they were originally taken," the intermediary told Channel 4 News. "It would not be hard to engineer a deal. It looks like they want to release them."
The kidnappers have warned, however, that attempts by the military to launch a rescue attempt "may result in the deaths of many of the captives".
After they converted to Islam, they were forcibly married off with a bride price of just 2,000 Naira. Dr Pogu Bitrus
"They want a way out," said the negotiator, who has long experience of dealing directly with the Islamist group Boko Haram in previous hostage crises.
Boko Haram translates as "western education is forbidden" and, like the Taliban, the group opposes the education of Muslim girls, particularly if that education has western influence.
Even though most of the kidnapped teenagers are from Christian families, the intermediary says the group believes it has already succeeded in embarrassing the government and instilling terror in the civilian population.
However splinter factions within the fractious group are understood to be arguing over what to do with their hostages. "The danger now is that the military will get involved and that can only end badly," he said.
Past kidnappings by the al-Qaeda inspired jihadist group, which is fighting for a strict sharia state in northern Nigeria, have ended with the execution of hostages as a result of attempted military intervention.
It seems the government is either incapable of handling or unwilling to handle this situation. Dr Margee Ensign
The hostage-takers have now been asked for a list of the girls' names as proof-of-life. The negotiator - who wanted to remain anonymous for reasons of personal security - said the group is demanding a ransom but added: "we are hoping they will soften their stance".
The Islamist insurgents abducted 273 girls, aged 16 to 18, from dormitories at the Chibok Girls' Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, a fortnight ago. Around 40 girls reportedly escaped early on. The numbers of those originally kidnapped - and those still held captive - has been in dispute. Last week, the missing girls' parents insisted that government figures had dramatically underestimated the number held.
The school's headteacher, Mrs Asabe Kwambura, told Channel 4 News on Tuesday that a further 10 girls had since been "recovered". "For now, the total number of girls we have recovered is 53 while 220 girls are still missing," said Mrs Kwambura.
Relocated, and 'forced to marry'
The abductors, who have been in intermittent contact with the intermediary over the past 48 hours, claim to have released "a number of hostages" because "they did shehada" - meaning forcible conversion to Islam, a hallmark tactic of Boko Haram.
Channel 4 News has also established that the schoolgirls are not being held in the group's notorious bush camps in the Sambisa forest, an area 50 miles to the south east of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. This region has reportedly been the focus of Nigerian military activity in recent days.
Instead, the hostages have, we understand, been split into smaller separate groups, a number of whom have been taken close to - or across - Nigeria's eastern border with Cameroon. This is an area from which Mohammed Nur, one of Boko Haram's leading commanders is known to operate.
"They have a problem," the intermediary said. "They have 220 captives and moving that many around cannot remain hidden. There is good, reliable, local knowledge as to their location. The military knows where they are."
The relocation of the teenage hostages has been corroborated by a senior community leader in Chibok, the town from which they were abducted. Dr Pogu Bitrus told Channel 4 News that he too has learned that following the kidnapping, many of the girls were forcibly converted and some then married off in neighbouring Cameroon. He did not cite his sources.
"Many were taken to the northern part of Borno state and then moved across into the Republic of Cameroon," he said. "After they converted to Islam, they were forcibly married off with a bride price of just 2,000 Naira [less than £10]." Dr Bitrus believes some of the girls do still remain in Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa forest. "The federal government must act fast" to avoid them suffering the same fate, he added.
Read more: Who are Boko Haram?
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Public anger at government
Public fury in Nigeria is focused on the government's perceived failure to respond to the hostage crisis. On Wednesday, women from across the country plan to stage a "one-million-women protest march" in the capital, Abuja, demanding the girls' release.
Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN education envoy, has also announced that he will meet Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja next week to discuss the girls' abductions. In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Brown said: "Despite a frantic search for them I understand the fears that the girls will either be used as sex slaves or be murdered."
The danger now is that the military will get involved and that can only end badly. Negotiator
President Jonathan has emerged as a lightning rod for public outrage. "It is inexcusable that this government is not responding," said Dr Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria. "It seems it is either incapable of handling or unwilling to handle this situation."
Dr Ensign spoke to Channel 4 News from Yola, in Adamawa State, south of where the schoolgirls are being held, which is also under emergency rule as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. She leads a local peace initiative among Christian and Muslim communities in Yola, and added: "You have to have an effective response to stop this violence.
Peaceful release viewed as 'humiliation'
"A military response can only stop the violence for a short period. But the only sure way to ensure peace is development. This crisis is playing out in one of the poorest parts of the poorest regions of Nigera, where illiteracy is around 80 per cent and where health care is almost non-existent."
While relatives of the missing girls have pressed for an urgent military rescue attempt, a security analyst familiar with Nigerian military operations said the armed forces would likely view a negotiated, peaceful release "as a humiliation".
The Nigerian military is widely reported to have benefited financially from the conflict with Boko Haram, with commanders - and politicians - rumoured to have taken cuts and kickbacks from multi-billion dollar budget allocations intended to fund the government fight back.
"They're making a lot of money from arms and security contracts connected with the anti-insurgency effort," said one analyst, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Although President Jonathan recently replaced the chiefs of his armed services, some question how much influence he wields over elements within the military. Many Nigerians are also convinced that the silence of other prominent Nigerian politicians on the issue of the schoolgirls' abductions is down to political rivalries.
"They want to see Goodluck go down," said one source.
Gbenga Celestine contributed to this article, from Maiduguri, Nigeria
25 April 2014
23 April 2014
More from around the web
- Why Fear Boko Haram slate.com
- Inside Nigeria's Sambisa forest theguardian.com
- Profile of Nigeria's Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau bbc.co.uk
- One million women march calls for release of kidnapped girls informationng.com
- Will no one protect Nigeria's students? theguardian.com