Nigeria's government is ruling out an exchange of more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls for detained Boko Haram Islamic militants, but the government is open to broader talks with the rebels, Britain's top official for Africa said Wednesday.
President Goodluck Jonathan is under pressure to crush the rebels who have killed thousands in their campaign for an Islamist state and to free the girls whose abduction a month ago has sparked global outrage.
Government officials initially said they were exploring all options with respect to the swap proposal and later said they were willing to negotiate with Boko Haram without specifying whether any putative talks might include an exchange for the girls.
Jonathan further refined that position on Wednesday during talks with Britain's Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds.
"He [Jonathan] made it very clear that there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram that involved a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners," Simmonds told reporters after meeting Jonathan.
"What he also made very clear to me was that he wanted his government to continue a dialogue to make sure a solution could be found and that security and stability could return to northern Nigeria for the medium and the long term," he added.
Rebels stormed a school in the northeastern village of Chibok a month ago and seized 276 girls who were taking exams. Some have escaped, but more than 200 remain missing.
In a video released on Monday, Boko Haram's leader said he will free the girls only if the government releases jailed members of his group.
The footage was verified as authentic by Nigerian authorities, who said 54 of the girls had been identified by relatives, teachers and classmates who watched the video late Tuesday.
Nigerian government officials have given conflicting responses to Boko Haram's offer of a swap.
One senior official said on Tuesday that "all options" are now open — including negotiations or a possible military operation with foreign help — in efforts find the missing girls.
It was not immediately possible to confirm Simmonds' comments with Nigerian officials.
Simmonds spoke before Nigeria's Defense Ministry announced that extremists had again attacked the remote northeastern town of Chibok, from which the schoolgirls were abducted on April 14.
The ministry said several insurgents and four soldiers were killed in the firefight Tuesday.
Soldiers who were there told The Associated Press that at least 12 soldiers were killed, and that angry soldiers later fired at the car carrying a senior officer who came to a review of the bodies Wednesday.
The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they want to keep their jobs.
France is due to hold a security summit in Paris on Saturday with Jonathan, leaders from neighbors Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger and other African countries, as well as representatives from the United States and Britain.
Jonathan said he welcomed the summit, which will discuss how to intensify collaboration against Boko Haram and other radical groups.
"If we all collaborate more, it will easier to eradicate Boko Haram and terrorism," he said in a statement.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.