U.S. intelligence officials will head to Nigeria to help with the search for 276 schoolgirls abducted last month by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Tuesday.
Kerry, who discussed the coordinated approach with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan by phone Tuesday, said the two countries would move immediately to establish a task force at the U.S. embassy in the capital city to provide more expertise on intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiations, as well as information sharing and victim assistance.
"We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of these young girls and we want to provide whatever assistance is possible in order to help for their safe return to their families," Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department in Washington.
He was joined by European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, with whom he’d met earlier in the day.
The young women represent Nigeria’s future, Ashton said.
"They are teachers, dancers, politicians. They are scientists. They are mothers. They are women in the making who have a right to play their full part in their society. And what has happened to them is devastating for all of us. And we must do, like you, everything possible to try and reunite them with their families and to prevent this ever, ever happening again."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the team heading to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria's capital city would include U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officials trained in investigations and hostage negotiations.
The announcement follows widespread condemnation and anger inside Nigeria and abroad that Jonathan's government has not done enough to rescue the girls, who were kidnapped April 14 from a secondary school.
Asked why the United States did not move more quickly to aid in the search, Kerry said the administration had been engaged from the beginning. He implied that it met some initial resistance from the Jonathan government.
"You can offer and talk, but you can't 'do' if a government has its own sense of how it's proceeding," Kerry said. "I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort. And it will begin immediately."
Meanwhile, suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped eight more girls between the ages of 12 and 15 from a village near one of their strongholds in northeastern Nigeria overnight, police and residents said earlier Tuesday.
Lazarus Musa, a resident of the village of Warabe, told Reuters that armed men had opened fire during the raid.
"They were many, and all of them carried guns. They came in two vehicles painted in army color. They started shooting in our village," Musa said by telephone from the village in the hilly Gwoza area, Boko Haram's main base.
A police source, who could not be named, said the girls were taken away on trucks, along with looted livestock and food.
Militants threaten to sell girls
On Tuesday, analysts said an announcement by the terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this week may have been timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum on Africa, a three-day event that begins Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria.
On Monday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatened in a video released to the media to sell the abducted girls “on the market.” No girls appeared in the video.
Nigerian officials said the economic forum would open as planned, despite growing public outrage over the abduction and government response.
The international conference is expected to draw more than 1,000 delegates and many heads of state.
Jonathan said Boko Haram activities would not disrupt the forum.
“Terror will not stop us from work," the Nigerian president said. "The act of terror in Africa is diversionary … organized by a group of people that don't want the continent to move forward. Whenever any country is seeing any sign of progress, you see these criminal elements that will come up to retard the country.”
In another development, the United Nations human rights office warned Islamist militants they could face charges of crimes against humanity if they carried out the threat to sell the kidnapped girls.
In a Tuesday briefing, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay, said that under international law, it would be considered "one of the most serious crimes" that exists.
Colville said those responsible for such a crime could be arrested, prosecuted and "jailed at any time in the future."
Also Tuesday, Britain said it was supporting the Nigerian government's efforts to find the girls. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government is offering "practical help" to Nigeria.
Boko Haram's actions "in using girls as the spoils of war, the spoils of terrorism, is disgusting, it is immoral," Hague said. "It should show everybody across the world that they should not give any support to such a vile organization" he said.
Anger in Nigeria
Activists and families of the missing girls are increasingly angry with the lack of action by Jonathan’s government.
Critics also fault the Nigerian government for failing to stop Boko Haram.
The militants have been blamed for thousands of deaths in the past five years. Two bombings within the past month at a bus station in the capital, Abuja, killed nearly 100 people.
Boko Haram said it wants to install its harsh version of Islamic law, but Clement Nwankwo, who directs the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said the violence may be partially driven by politics.
“For us who are asking questions, we are asking, ‘Did somebody set off this bomb in order to blame the opposition for it?’ In which case, perhaps it’s not even Boko Haram. These are the questions Nigerians are asking,” Nwankwo said.
As world leaders arrive in Abuja for the economic forum, authorities are tightening security, preparing to virtually shut down the city for the conference.
The World Economic Forum acknowledged security concerns but said cancellations for the event were no more than usual.
Girl recalls kidnapping, escape
A 16-year-old girl, who always had prided herself on running faster than her six brothers, was among about 50 students who escaped after Boko Haram attacked the Chibok girls school last month.
She spoke about her ordeal for the first time to the Associated Press, saying when the chance to escape arose, she and several others ran.
"We ran and ran, so fast," said the girl. "That is how I saved myself. I had no time to be scared, I was just running."
A few other girls clung to low-hanging branches and waited until the kidnappers' vehicles had passed. Then they met up in the bush and made their way back to the road. A man on a bicycle came across them and accompanied them back home.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AP.