ABUJA: U.S. surveillance aircraft were flying over remote areas of northeast Nigeria as part of an international hunt for about 200 girls kidnapped a month ago by Boko Haram militants who stormed their school.
Thousands of Nigerian troops have been sent to the region, while the U.S. and Britain also have teams on the ground to help with the search.
The mass abduction of the girls from their boarding school in Chibok has caused international outrage and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s government has faced criticismfrom parents and others for its a slow response.
It has also brought global publicity to Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of Nigerians since it took up arms in 2009 to fight for an Islamist state.
The group had initially threatened to sell the girls into slavery but Monday offered to trade them for detained militants.
The U.S. State Department said Washington had sent military, law-enforcement and development experts to Nigeria to help search for the missing girls.
“We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets over Nigeria with the government’s permission,” a U.S. official said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. teams on the ground “are digging in on the search and coordinating closely with the Nigerian government as well as international partners and allies.”
The commander of U.S. forces in Africa has flown to the country to discuss how Washington can help. A defense official told AFP that General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, “is discussing U.S. assistance for the search as well as overall cooperation.”
The four-star general arrived Monday for talks with his Nigerian counterparts and also was due to meet U.S. diplomats and military officers, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The girls’ exact whereabouts and whether they are being held in one or more groups is not known. Chibok is close to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, Niger and Chad in a sparsely populated area of the Sahel.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau posted a video Monday offering to release the girls in exchange for prisoners held by the government – the first visual evidence of them in captivity. The government said in response that it was exploring all options.
The video showed more than 110 girls sitting on the ground in a rural location chanting, singing and wearing veils. It was not clear when it was filmed or whether Shekau, who sat in front of a green backdrop holding an AK-47 during part of the video, was in the same location as the girls.
A mother of one of the girls said she had watched the video on television Monday evening and spotted her daughter among the girls sitting on the ground, said Dumoma Mpur, parent-teachers association chairman at Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok.
“The video got parents apprehensive again after watching it but the various steps taken by the governments and the coming of the foreign troops is boosting our spirit,” Mpur told Reuters.
Mpur said he had yet to see a soldier involved in the hunt in Chibok, though he said what looked like a surveillance jet and two helicopters were visible over the area.
A Nigerian soldier with an artillery unit said rebels over the weekend ambushed his unit in the Sambisa forest, which is a Boko Haram stronghold, using mines and rocket-propelled grenades.
They killed eight soldiers and wounded four more, said the soldier, who spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity. There was no immediate response from Nigerian Defense Headquarters.