LAGOS - Boko Haram released a new video on Monday claiming to show the missing Nigerian schoolgirls and claiming that teenagers had converted to Islam and would not be released until all militant prisoners were freed.
The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, speaks on the video obtained by AFP for 17 minutes before showing what he said were the girls, in Muslim dress and praying in an undisclosed rural location.
A total of 276 girls were abducted on April 14 from the northeastern town of Chibok, in Borno state, which has a sizeable Christian community. Police say 223 are still missing. The footage shows about 130 girls in black and grey full-length hijabs sitting on scrubland near trees, reciting the first chapter of holy Quran, and holding their palms upwards in prayer.
Three of the girls are interviewed. Two say they were Christian and had converted while one said she was Muslim.
All three pronounce their belief in Islam, dispassionately to the camera, sometimes looking down at the ground and apparently under duress.
Most of the group behind them were seated cross-legged on the ground. The girls appeared calm and one said that they had not been harmed.
There was no indication of when the video was taken, although the quality is better than on previous occasions and at one point an armed man is seen in shot with a hand-held video camera.
Boko Haram has been waging an increasingly deadly insurgency in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north since 2009, attacking schools teaching a “Western” curriculum, churches and government targets.
Civilians, though, have borne the brunt of recent violence, with more than 1,500 killed this year alone while tens of thousands have been displaced after their homes and businesses were razed.
Nigeria’s government has been criticised for its lack of immediate response to the kidnapping that triggered international outrage. It acted after mounting global condemnation at Shekau’s threats to sell the girls as slaves.
President Goodluck Jonathan has now accepted help from the United States, Britain, France, China and Israel, which have sent specialist teams to help in the search effort.
In the video, Shekau appears in front of a lime green canvas backdrop wearing combat fatigues and carrying an automatic weapon. Shekau does not appear in the same shot as the girls at any point during the 27-minute video.
Speaking in his native Hausa language as well as Arabic, he restates his claim of responsibility made in a video released last Monday and said the girls had converted to Islam while others had not.
“These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with... we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims,” he said. “There are still others who have not converted and are holding on to your belief. There are many of them,” he added.
“You are making so much noise about Chibok, Chibok, Chibok. Only Allah knows how many women we are holding, the infidels who Allah commands us to hold.”
The militant leader said that Boko Haram’s brothers in arms had been held in prison for up to five years and suggested that the girls would be released if the fighters were freed. “We will never release them (the girls) until after you release our brethren,” he said.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping of women and young girls in the past and Shekau indicated that more were being held. Eleven girls were abducted from the Gwoza area of Borno state on May 4.
Nigeria’s army is currently concentrating its efforts on the Sambisa forest of Borno state while international assistance involves specialist surveillance and intelligence teams.
Meanwhile, Nigeria on Monday rejected conditions set out by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau for the release of more than 200 schoolgirls held hostage by the rebels. Asked if the government would reject the suggestion by Shekau in a new video that the girls may be released once Nigeria frees all militant prisoners, Interior Minister Abba Moro told AFP: “Of course.”
“The issue in question is not about Boko Haram... giving conditions,” he said.
International efforts have widened to trace more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by militants in Nigeria, while France has called for African leaders to hold a summit focused on the issue.
Israel on Sunday joined the bid to find the 223 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram fighters, but Washington said US troops would stay out of any rescue mission.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone and accepted an offer for assistance in finding the girls.
Britain, the United States and France have already sent specialist teams and equipment to help Nigeria’s military in the search concentrated in the remote northeast, which has been hit by five years of deadly violence.
French President Francois Hollande said a summit on security in west Africa, focusing on Boko Haram, could be held as early as this Saturday “if the countries agree”.