Referring to a video said to have been seen by it, The Mail on Sunday yesterday claimed that eight girls spoke in the footage. The girls, dressed in their pale blue gingham school uniform, were said to have pleaded for release.
The video, which the paper described as “heartbreaking”, was said to have been shot in a jungle clearing a month after the girls’ abduction.
An Australian cleric, Dr. Stephen Davis, said to have been hired by President Goodluck Jonathan, is negotiating for the release of the girls, who were abducted in their school on April 15.
Dr. Davis, described as a friend of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been working secretly in Nigeria for almost a month now, the newspaper said.
At the weekend, Cameroun security forces killed no fewer than 40 Boko Haram militants in clashes in the country’s far north, the state radio said yesterday.
Describing how the girls looked on the video, The Mail on Sunday said: “They are clearly scared, upset and trying to be brave. Each of them walks in turn to a spot in front of a white sheet fixed to a crude frame between the trees.”
Four of them, it said, could be heard clearly, in Hausa, stating that they were taking by force and that they are hungry.
“A tall girl, aged about 18, says tearfully, ‘my family will be worried’.
“Another speaking softly, says: ‘I never expected to suffer like this in my life’. A third says: ‘They have taken us away by force’. The fourth girl complains: ‘We are not getting enough food’.”
The girls were said to have looked healthy and spoken bravely. Some are, however, said to have fallen ill, including one with a broken wrist.
The video, taken by an intermediary on May 19, is said to have been shown to Dr. Jonathan to serve as “proof of life” for the girls and to encourage him to accede to Boko Haram’s demands.
Two earlier videos showed the girls seated on the ground, dressed in hijab, reciting the Quran, and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declaring he would sell them into slavery, or marry them off to their kidnappers, if members of his sect were not released from prison.
Dr. Davis, the paper said is “desperately” trying to free the girls after leaving his home in Perth, Australia, to travel to Nigeria following his recruitment by Dr. Jonathan for his hostage negotiation expertise.
The former Canon Emeritus at Coventry Cathedral in the UK, who moved back to Australia last year, reportedly told MailOnline: “I am encouraged by the progress.”
He was asked to come to Nigeria after previously brokering a truce between the government and Niger Delta militants in 2004.
Along with Mr Welby, he was frequently blindfolded and held at gunpoint during his peace work.
In an email from Nigeria, Davis revealed he has had “ongoing contact” with the groups involved in kidnappings in the North for seven years.
“This is a long process of building trust on both sides,” he said.
“There are several groups to deal with as the girls are held in several camps. This makes any thought of a rescue highly improbable. To attempt to rescue one group would only endanger the others.”
Despite the difficulties of a rescue operation, Dr Davis remains hopeful that the girls will be freed.
“Every day there is the possibility of the release of the girls,” he said.
“This is painful for the parents and the nation. The well-being of the girls is constantly on our minds and we want to see their release as soon as possible,” he said, adding: “We must not endanger their lives any further”.
Pressure from the international community and criticism of the President’s slow response to the kidnapping have led to a series of contradictory pronouncements from his administration.
Ministers have declared that the government would not negotiate with Boko Haram, or consider the release of prisoners, while official spokesmen have said “the window is always open for dialogue”.
At a Paris peace summit, several West African countries vowed to join Nigeria in an “outright war” against Boko Haram. Britain, France and America pledged their support and have sent teams of military experts and advisers to the region.
Intelligence sources have told The Mail on Sunday of several rescue attempts, one involving the release of suspected low-level Boko Haram members detained without charges or trial.
Two attempts were aborted at the last minute when the sect members became afraid while delivering a group of girls to a safe location.
Last week, the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, said the government knew the location of the girls, claiming that the police and military had been “following them” since the abduction. He refused to divulge details, saying it would put the girls in further danger.
Sources said Marshal Badeh’s remark may have been the result of government officials seeing the new, unpublished video. They may have been able to persuade Boko Haram’s intermediary to provide details of the location. It is believed the hostages have been split into at least four groups.
“The vast majority of the Chibok girls are not being held in Nigeria,” Dr Davis said, adding: “They are in camps across the Nigerian border in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. I say the vast majority as I know a small group was confirmed to me to be in Nigeria last week when we sought to have them released.”
He described how tough the negotiation has been.
“One of that small group of girls is ill and we had hoped we might convince the commander of the group holding her that she should be released so we could give her medical treatment.
“There are other girls who are not well and we have come close to having them released but their captors fear a trap in which they will be captured in the handover process.
“One girl has what I assume is a broken wrist as they demonstrate to me how she holds her hand. I have been told that others are sick and in need of medical attention,” Davis said.
A military source said: “This has been a race against time from the minute they were captured. As soon as the girls left Nigerian soil it was always going to be more difficult.
“The government made no attempt at a rescue until a month after they were taken. Now the situation gets more serious by the day.
“Any sort of attempt to get them would have to be cleared by the governments of the other nations.”
Condemnations of the government’s failure to address the Boko Haram menace, ever since a proposed peace deal failed last August – leading to the extension of a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states – continued worldwide last week.
US Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Nigeria had been “tragically and unacceptably slow” to begin a search.
Former anti-graft czar Nuhu Ribadu has accused the government of “total failure”.