The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has released a video it claims shows dozens of missing schoolgirls abducted last month in northern Nigeria.
The 17-minute video shows about 100 of the girls dressed in black and gray full-length hijabs, sitting in an undisclosed rural area, reciting Muslim scriptures and holding their hands for prayers.
The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, speaks on the video obtained by the French news agency AFP for 17 minutes before showing what he said were the girls, in Muslim dress and praying in an undisclosed rural location.
The White House says it has seen the video and has no reason to question its authenticity. Spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. intelligence experts are carefully looking at the video for clues that could help find the girls. He also said the Untied States is providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to Nigeria's government.
"As you know, President Obama has directed his team to do everything it can to support the Nigerian government's efforts to find and free these girls. I can report to you that our interdisciplinary team with representatives from the State Department, Department of Defense, the FBI and others is up and running now in our Embassy in Nigeria, helping to support the Nigerian government by providing military and law enforcement assistance as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support," said Carney.
"Our intelligence experts are combing through every detail of the video for clues that might help in ongoing efforts to secure the release of the girls," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. After acknowledging that "Nigeria is in the lead" in the effort to find the girls and that the U.S. was playing a support role, Psaki dismissed Shekau's demand, saying "the United States' policy is to deny kidnappers the benefits of their criminal acts - including ransoms or concessions."
In comments to the French News Agency, Nigerian Interior Minister Abba Moro said the government would not consider a swap of jailed militants for the schoolgirls.
But the Director General of Nigeria's National Orientation Agency, Mike Omeri, said officials are studying the situation, and all options remain open to free the missing girls.
Nigerian authorities are holding hundreds of suspected Boko Haram militants in jail.
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. About 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 the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and holding their palms upwards in prayer.
In the video, three of the girls are interviewed. Two of the girls said they were Christian and had converted, while the other one said she was Muslim. Most of the group remained seated. 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 the 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.
Analysts on the region
Journalist Eliza Griswold called Boko Haram's Shekau “a lunatic” on CNN's GPS Sunday news show.
Griswold wrote "The Tenth Parallel," describing the latitude that bisects a number of troubled countries, including Nigeria.
“Abubakar Shekau ... is really a lunatic. If one were to compare him to somebody else in Africa, we would look at Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who actually in setting precedent took a whole school of young girls from their boarding school some years ago in northern Uganda,” Griswold said.
“Both of them use religion. Kony claims generally to be Catholic. So it really is not as much about Islam as it really is about thuggery, about seizing power, about sex, about taking these young women really as sex slaves and cooks to do the things that the militants themselves don’t want to do,” she said.
Griswold described Boko Haram as "a group that's really more of a mess than a militant group. They are a bunch of armed young men who come out of an Islamic movement in northern Nigeria. So Nigeria is split, north-south, largely Christian and Muslim along those lines.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said on the CNN news show, “I think we have this misperception that the great divide is between different faiths. Between Christianity and Islam, for example. ... It's not so much between different faiths, it's between moderates and extremists, generally.
“Moderate Muslims and moderate Christians have a great deal in common. Extremists Muslims and extremists Christians have in common the willingness to resort to violence, oppression, and that is what we're seeing with Boko Haram,” Kristof said.
“If you look at places where women and girls are least likely to get educated, where they're most likely to be oppressed, then those are disproportionately countries with conservative Muslim populations," he said.
"But there are also places where the culture itself, quite aside from religion, is deeply oppressive of women. I mean, Afghanistan, for example. And I think that, you know, what we're seeing here is, unfortunately, a spiral. ...
"So in northern Nigeria, there is very little education. Women are marginalized, partly for cultural and historical reasons. Often people cite Islam as the reason. Female literacy in this region is less than 50 percent. And then that leads people to think girls shouldn't get educated, that leads them to attack schools so girls don't get educated, which leaves those areas be further marginalized. Women to be less a part of the economy, less a part of the society and leads groups like Boko Haram to have even more influence,” he said.
Calls girls "liberated"
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 Hausa and Arabic, he restates his claim of responsibility made in a video released last Monday and said the girls had converted to Islam.
"These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with … we have indeed liberated them. We have indeed liberated them. Do you know we have liberated them? These girls have become Muslims," Shekau said.
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. Here I mean those girls who have not submitted [converted to Islam]," he added.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping of women and young girls in the past and Shekau indicated that more were being held.
At least eight girls were abducted from the Gwoza area of Borno state on May 4.
Chibok forces overwhelmed
Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima confirmed over the weekend that the government had received information about a possible attack on the Chibok school hours before the gunmen arrived, and that they notified security officials in Chibok.
Shettima said Chibok residents spotted the gunmen as they traveled toward Chibok on the day of the attack.
He said the residents notified a government official who then contacted the Chibok police chief, as well as the military and riot police commanders stationed in the village.
Shettima said the security forces assured the government official they were prepared for the militants. The revelation further confirmed what Amnesty International reported last week, that law enforcement agencies that the Nigerian military was warned ahead of the attack, but that they were over powered.
Nigeria's government has been criticized for its lack of immediate response to the kidnapping but has been forced to act after Shekau threatened 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.
A Pentagon official confirms the U.S. is now providing Nigeria with ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in the search for the missing girls.
French President Francois Hollande on Sunday offered to host a summit in Paris on May 17 with Nigeria and its neighbors focused on the militant group.
The leaders of Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger might also attend and Britain, the European Union and the United States would probably be represented as well, Hollande's aides said.
The abducted girls were also on the minds of European foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels.
"The thoughts of all of us remain with the families, especially the parents of the abducted children, the girls in Nigeria. I have no doubt that that will again become part of our discussions today as it is so important that we all continue to help to support the Nigerian government to find the girls and reunite them with their family,” said Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief.
The mass abduction of schoolgirls has touched a chord around the world, and triggered a support campaign using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Some information for this report provided by AFP, Reuters, AP. VOA's Scott Stearns reported from the State Department.