Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigeria's Islamist Boko Haram militants, vowed Monday that the nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by his fighters will be held until detained militants are freed.
"I swear to almighty Allah you will not see them again until you release our people that you have captured," Shekau said while cradling an assault rifle in a new video.
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Looking sad and frightened, dozens of barefoot girls sat huddled together wearing grey Muslim veils as they chanted Quranic verses in Arabic. Some Christians among them said they had converted to Islam.
In the video released Monday, the Boko Haram terrorist network offered the first public glimpse of what it claimed were some of the nearly 300 girls kidnapped from a Nigerian school a month ago — and issued an ominous threat. The girls will not be seen again, the group's leader said menacingly, until the government frees his imprisoned fighters.
"I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured," Abubakar Shekau warned, an assault rifle slung across his chest.
It is not known how many suspected Boko Haram members are detained by security forces. Hundreds were killed last month when Shekau's fighters stormed the military's main northeastern barracks in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram and the headquarters of a year-old military state of emergency to put down the 5-year-old Islamic uprising.
Girls questioned directly
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, was asked.
"The reason why I became a Muslim is because the path we are on is not the right path," the girl said, nervously shifting her body from side to side, her eyes darting back and forth.
"We should enter the right path so that Allah will be happy with us," added the girl, who said her name had been changed to Halima because she had converted from Christianity to Islam. Like the other girls, she wore a bulky grey hijab that covered her body from head to toe, revealing only her face.
A second girl, who appeared to be in her mid-teens, was asked if she or any of the others had been mistreated. No, she said, adding that they had experienced nothing "except righteousness."
As the girls chanted Islamic verses, some clasped their hands together in what appeared 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 told The Associated Press by telephone. "We want to be able to say, 'These are our girls."'
The video showed 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.
'Combing over every detail' of video
Bitrus said vegetation in the video looked like the Sambisa Forest, some 30 kilometres from Chibok, where the girls were believed to have been spirited away.
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."
In a video last week, Shekau threatened to sell the girls into slavery. It arrived amid unverified reports that Christians among the students had been forced to convert to Islam and that some were taken to neighbouring Cameroon and Chad, where they were forced to marry their abductors. Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful."
The latest video, obtained by The Associated Press, came through channels that have provided previous messages from Shekau, who spoke in the video in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria. Wearing camouflage fatigues, he clutched an assault rifle in the footage, which was imprinted with the Boko Haram insignia — a Qur'an 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 has 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.
The foreign help does not involve boots on the ground but rather experts in intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism and hostage negotiations.
30 U.S. personnel assisting search
The White House says the U.S. team assisting the Nigerian government's search for nearly 300 abducted schoolgirls is made up of nearly 30 people drawn from the State and Defense departments, as well as the FBI.
The team includes:
- 10 Defense Department planners who were already in Nigeria and were redirected to assist the government.
- Seven Defense Department personnel were sent to Nigeria from AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command based in Germany.
- The team also includes four FBI personnel and five State Department officials.
— The Associated Press
The U.S. team consists of some 30 people drawn from the State and Defence 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 Defence Department personnel were on the team, including planners and advisers who were already in Nigeria and have been redirected to assist the government.
French President Francois Hollande invited Jonathan and leaders from neighbouring 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.