Abducted Schoolgirls: Govt Drops Swap Deal For Ceasefire

AFTER rejecting a prisoner swap deal with Boko Haram, the Federal Government is pushing for ceasefire as part of the ongoing back-door talks for the release of the abducted schoolgirls, The Nation learnt yesterday.

The government, according to sources, is tinkering with releasing “soft” detainees arrested in connection with Boko Haram activities.

But it was learnt that the sect is yet to respond to the ceasefire proposal, fueling fears that the two parties may be set for a long battle.

The government is believed to be asking the facilitators of the back-door talks to tell Boko Haram to accept a ceasefire.

The source said: “The thrust of the ongoing back-door talks is just for the sect members to lay down their arms and release the abducted girls. The government wants ceasefire from Boko Haram.

“We are still talking. The Federal Government is rubbing minds with Boko Haram contacts.”

Responding to a question, the source added: “There was no time President Goodluck Jonathan agreed to the swapping of Boko Haram members with the girls. This position has not changed as I am talking to you.

“Only soft detainees like wives, children, brothers, sisters and uncles of Boko Haram members, may be released, in line with the rules of engagement.

“So far, we do not know their attitude to the ceasefire demand; they are yet to get back to us.”

It was gathered that the military may take delivery of three surveillance aircraft to assist in the search for the abducted girls.

A military source added: “All what we are doing is still surveillance of suspected areas or camps where the girls are purportedly held hostage.

“The US, the UK, France and others have been assisting in the surveillance, which is a 24-hour business along Sambisa Forest axis, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Mali borders. The troops on ground are still within the fringes of Sambisa Forest.

“As part of plans to strengthen the operation in the Northeast, the military will soon get delivery of three surveillance aircraft.”

A British newspaper published on Sunday that the schoolgirls, who were kidnapped on April 15, would have regained their freedom by now but President Goodluck Jonathan called off a prisoner swap deal with Boko Haram at the last minute. The Mail on Sunday said a Nigerian journalist, Ahmad Salkida — who reportedly fled to the United Arab Emirates last year following threats to his life on account of his closeness to the militants — was said to have been appointed by both the government and the extremists to broker an agreement for the release of the girls in exchange for Boko Haram members in detention.

“Sources in the Nigerian capital Abuja described how Shekau had agreed to bring the girls out of their forest camps in the remote northeast of the country in the early morning and take them to a safe location for the prisoner swap,” the paper wrote.

“They would have been dropped off in a village, one group at a time, and left there while their kidnappers disappeared. There was to be a signal to a mediator at another location to bring in the prisoners.” Curiously, the federal government was only expected to release 100 “non-combatant, low-level sympathisers” of Boko Haram, rather than commanders and foot soldiers, the newspaper reported.

About 2000 Boko Haram members are said to be in detention. Accused of being a Boko Haram sympathiser, the Borno-born journalist has always insisted he only maintains a “professional relationship” with certain members of the group whom he knew long before it became violent. However, he was reportedly persuaded by the president’s aides to embark on a “secretive and dangerous” trip home to meet Shekau, after the president “personally signed a letter of indemnity” protecting him from arrest by security agents. But while attending the May 17, 2014 Paris terrorism summit with leaders of four African countries and representatives of the European Union, United Kingdom, and the United States, Jonathan called home to halt the deal, the paper said. The about-face, it is believed, has angered Shekau, raising fears that the girls might now be endangered.

“The next video we see from the terrorists could show the girls being killed one by one,” The Mail on Sunday quoted an intelligence source as saying. The turnaround may as well spell the end of any peace deal with Boko Haram, as Salkida is about the group’s most-trusted and unbiased go-between with the Federal Government.

“He is probably the only civilian with access to Shekau. There is trust between them and Salkida had only one aim — to get the schoolgirls out,” the source said. “He reported afterwards that the group of girls he saw were alive and well, and being adequately fed and sheltered. They told him all they wanted was to go home.” Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati was quoted by the newspaper as saying he was not aware of any attempted rescue plan.

The BBC also reported that a deal for the release of some of the schoolgirls was close to being secured when the government called it off.

Some of the girls were set to be freed in exchange for imprisoned Islamist militants, reports the BBC’s Will Ross.

But the government cancelled the planned agreement shortly before the swap was due to take place.

The reasons for the withdrawal are unclear.

It came just after President Jonathan attended a meeting in Paris hosted by President Francois Hollande of France where leaders said they had agreed a “global and regional action plan” against Boko Haram.

The girls, who were mainly Christian, were taken from their school in Chibok, in  Borno State and are thought to be held in the Sambisa forest, close to the border with Chad and Cameroon.

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