6 May 2014

Nigeria kidnappings: more girls abducted

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Groups of armed men kidnapped eight more girls – most of them teenagers – and attacked a further school in Nigeria, adding to more than 200 schoolgirls abducted three weeks ago.

Militants attacked one school in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, and reports are now emerging of another attack on Sunday night, in a village in the country’s north east.

Some Boko Haram members invaded our village on Sunday night and kidnapped our young girls and made away with food items and livestock. Musa Ibrahim, Warabe resident

The raids follow the kidnapping of 273 schoolgirls three weeks ago, an attack that has been claimed by the jihadi insurgent group, Boko Haram, whose name translates as “western education is forbidden”.

In the village of Warabe, gunmen attacked overnight, kidnapping the eight girls aged between 12 and 15. The village is close to one of Boko Haram’s known strongholds, the Sambisa forest reserve, 40 miles south east of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri.

Warabe is also just a few miles from Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, a region in which a senior Boko Haram commander, Mamman Nur, is known to operate. Nur is believed to have fought and trained with Somalia’s Islamist insurgent group, al-Shabaab.

In a telephone interview, Musa Ibrahim, a Warabe resident told Channel 4 News: “Some Boko Haram members invaded our village on Sunday night and kidnapped our young girls and made away with food items and livestock. There were around 30 of them,” he said, “and they were well armed.”

Lazarus Musa, another Warabe resident, told Reuters news agency: “They were many, and all of them carried guns. They came in two vehicles painted in army colour. They started shooting in our village.”

An unidentified police source said the girls were taken away on trucks, along with looted livestock and food.

Security on the ground

Early on Tuesday morning, gunmen also attacked a private Montessori primary school in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in what the school’s founder described as an apparent effort to kidnap pupils.

Folakolade Tamitatayo, the founder of Vine International Academy, which has more than 200 students, immediately linked the attack to the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram which for the past three weeks has been holding 220 teenaged schoolgirls hostage.

The school is located in Nyanya – a district in which two deadly bombs claimed by Boko Haram have exploded within the last fortnight. It was attacked at 8am on Tuesday morning.

Mrs Folakolade told Channel 4 News: “Three gunmen suspected of belonging to Boko Haram attacked our school eight o’clock this morning but did not succeed is taking any of our pupils. They took away a 14-seater belonging to the school.”

“We need security on ground before we can reopen the school,” she said. Her comments will have resonance among parents across Nigeria, who share security concerns following the abduction of the girls from Chibok government secondary school on 14th April.

‘Slaves’The attacks will stoke security fears in the run-up to the prestigious World Economic Forum in Africa which opens in Abuja tomorrow. It is thought likely that Boko Haram will attempt to use Nigeria’s moment in the international spotlight to maximum effect.

On Monday, an armed militant purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekkau, appeared in a 57-minute-long video claiming to have abducted the Chibok girls. He gloated that he would sell them in the market as “slaves.”

The Nigerian military believes that Shekkau was mortally wounded in a gun battle with security forces last year in the Sambisa forest, where the group has known hideouts and bush camps. But while the insurgent in the video may be an imposter, no doubt has been cast on the veracity of the video.

Security sources say it is possible that following the attack on the school in Abuja, the actions of Boko Haram are being copied by other militant groups loosely affiliated to the broader al-Qaeda-linked franchise to which it belongs.

The Islamist rebels say they are fighting for a strict Taliban-style sharia state in northern Nigeria. The insurgency has left thousands dead in just over a decade and more than 1,400 so far this year.

Negotiating release

Efforts to resolve the kidnapping crisis are continuing despite the aggressive stance of the captors. The negotiator with whom Channel 4 News has been in regular contact, believes the group wants to release 18 of the kidnapped girls who are understood to be critically ill and need urgent medical attention.

He said that if their release can be successfully engineered without intervention by the Nigerian military, that many of the other 200 missing girls might also be freed. But there are fears that a negotiated solution to the kidnap crisis might be viewed as a humiliation by the Nigerian military.

Boko Haram claims three of the girls they had kidnapped have died, although they have provided no information as to how this may have happened. Around 50 have escaped and others are reported to have been trafficked into neighbouring countries and sold into marriage.

According to the negotiator, who has been talking to the abductors for 10 days now, Boko Haram is still threatening to shoot dead the remaining captives if the Nigerian military attempts a rescue.

“If they are not released by the end of the week,” he said, “there will be a whole lot more of them dead. This has to be done and it has to be done fast.” The negotiator has insisted on anonymity on account of his personal security.

Despite impressions from the Boko Haram video, the intermediary contends that the captors are “in the frame of mind” required to do a deal. “The commanders are in agreement,” he told Channel 4 News. “This has to be done quickly or the risk to the girls escalates rapidly.”

International outcry

The Nigerian government – and military – have come under intensifying pressure to rescue the girls as public fury has grown.

On Sunday, in what were his first public comments on the hostage crisis, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan said Nigeria’s security forces still didn’t actually know where the kidnapped girls were.

“We promise,” he said, “that anywhere the girls are, we will surely get them out,” adding that he has sought international assistance and had spoken to President Barack Obama “at least twice” about the situation.

The United States and Britain are among countries known to have offered practical support. The White House on Monday described the crisis as “an outrage and a tragedy.

“We are doing what we can to assist the Nigerian government.”

It is possible that this may include the provision of military drones to help track the girls and their captors.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague today condemned the girls’ kidnap as “digusting and immoral” and repeated the UK’s offer of help. He said: “I hope they will do what is necessary to reunite these girls with their families.”

Gbenga Celestine in Abuja contributed to this report