Anxious wait for Nigeria girls after Boko Haram 'deal'

Aminu Abubakar
Anxious wait for Nigeria girls after Boko Haram 'deal'

Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - More than 24 hours after Nigerian officials claimed to have reached a deal with Boko Haram militants to free more than 200 schoolgirls, relatives of the teenagers were still anxiously waiting for news about their return.

Senior government and military officials on Friday said they had struck a ceasefire agreement with the Islamists ravaging the country's north.

The deal reportedly included the release of the 219 girls whom the extremists seized from their school in April in a case that drew global outrage and sparked a #BringBackOurGirls campaign that included the likes of US First Lady Michelle Obama and Pakistani Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai.

But there was still no confirmation from Boko Haram's leader and some senior Nigerian officials have questioned the claim.

Reports on Saturday of attacks by gunmen believed to be Boko Haram Islamists in Abadam, a town near the border with Niger, further threw the purported truce into doubt.

The claims could not be independently verified.

A precedent of previous government and military claims about an end to the deadly five-year conflict and the fate of the missing teenagers have also left the relatives cautious.

"We hope it is not deception‎ because we have some doubt," Enoch Mark told AFP from Chibok -- the town where the girls, including his daughter and two nieces, were kidnapped.

"This is what we have been itching to hear for the past six months," said Ayuba Chibok, whose niece is among those seized. "My prayer is that the two sides will honour the agreement."

Friday's announcement was made by Chief of Defence Staff Air Marshal Alex Badehand and Hassan Tukur, a senior aide to President Goodluck Jonathan.

But the Nigerian government's own security spokesman, Mike Omeri, said that no deal had yet been reached on releasing the girls.

And Ralph Bello-Fadile an advisor to Nigeria's National Security Advisor (NSA), cautioned that the NSA has been inundated with fraudsters claiming to represent Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

The United States said it could not confirm whether a deal had taken place.

Jonathan is expected to declare his bid for re-election in the coming weeks, and positive news about the hostages and the violence would likely give him a political boost.

- Chad talks -

Jonathan's aide Tukur said he represented the government at two meetings with the Islamists in Chad, which were mediated by the country's President Idriss Deby.

"Boko Haram issued the ceasefire as a result of the discussions we have been having with them," said Tukur.

"They have agreed to release the Chibok girls," he said.

Leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which has been pressuring the government to act, gave a cautious welcome to a possible release.

"We are really cautious because there have been many times that such optimism has been expressed but did not materialise," Obi Ezekwesili, a former education minister said in a television interview on Saturday.

"But all the same, we are hopeful," she said.

Ndjamena refused to comment but security sources in the country said Chad, which Jonathan visited for talks with Deby early last month, had been involved in the discussions.

The source also said a ceasefire agreement was reached as well as the release of 27 hostages, 10 of them Chinese nationals, who were kidnapped in northern Cameroon earlier this year.

The release of the hostages last weekend was "a first strong signal" from Boko Haram to prove their good faith, the source added but did not mention the schoolgirls.

Cameroon announced on Friday that eight of its soldiers and 107 Boko Haram fighters were killed during fierce fighting in its far north region on Wednesday and Thursday.

A police officer told AFP that at least 30 civilians had been killed by Boko Haram before the military ambush.

- Discrepancies -

Doubts about a possible deal were also raised over the man whom the government claimed to have represented Boko Haram at the Chad talks, Danladi Ahmadu.

In an interview Ahmadu gave on Friday on the Hausa language service of Voice of America radio, he claimed not to have met Shekau; referred to the group by a name insurgents never use themselves; and did not mention their unwavering demand, the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.

Shekau has in a series of video messages since 2012 ruled out talks with the government and said northern Nigeria will never know peace until sharia (Islamic law) is strictly enforced.

Envoys from Nigeria's presidency have made similar ceasefire claims in the past, notably Jonathan's Minister for Special Duties Taminu Turaki, who led a so-called amnesty commission in 2013 that was tasked with brokering peace.

But nothing materialised from Turaki's protracted negotiations. Shekau said that he never sent delegates to any talks and attacks continued at a relentless pace.