MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, (Reuters) – Nigeria’s president has rejected an offer from Islamist rebel group Boko Haram to exchange schoolgirls it abducted for imprisoned militants, but the government is open to broader talks with the rebels, a visiting British minister said.
President Goodluck Jonathan is under pressure to crush the rebels who have killed thousands in their campaign for an Islamist state and to free the girls whose abduction a month ago has sparked global outrage.
Government officials initially said they were exploring all options with respect to the swap proposal and later said they were willing to negotiate with Boko Haram without specifying whether any putative talks might include an exchange for the girls.
Jonathan further refined that position on Wednesday during talks with Britain’s Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds.
“He (Jonathan) made it very clear that there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram that involved a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners,” Simmonds told reporters after meeting Jonathan.
“What he also made very clear to me was that he wanted his government to continue a dialogue to make sure a solution could be found and that security and stability could return to northern Nigeria for the medium and the long term,” he added.
Rebels stormed a school in the northeastern village of Chibok a month ago and seized 276 girls who were taking exams. Some have escaped, but about 200 remain missing. On Monday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video showing some of the girls in captivity and offered the swap.
The abductions have triggered a social media campaign under the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and the United States, Britain, France and Israel have offered help or sent experts to Nigeria to assist the effort.
Britain has offered a Sentinel surveillance plane, a team embedded at Nigerian military headquarters, a team embedded with international groups analysing intelligence from the hunt and more funding for a Safe Schools Initiative, Simmonds said.
“The offer has been accepted by President Jonathan … so we are working on the detail of that and how we might facilitate a quick implementation,” Simmonds said.