Children designated ambassadors for the Chibok girls protest on April 14, 2015 in the Nigerian capital Abuja, demanding the release of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants
Paris (AFP) - President Muhammadu Buhari told AFP Wednesday that Nigerian authorities were talking to Boko Haram prisoners in their custody and could offer them amnesty if the extremist group hands over more than 200 schoolgirls abducted last year.
The Nigerian leader added that he was confident "conventional" attacks by the group would be rooted out by November -- but cautioned that deadly suicide attacks, some of them waged by children, were likely to continue.
"The few (prisoners) we are holding, we are trying to see whether we can negotiate with them for the release of the Chibok girls," Buhari said in an interview in Paris during a three-day visit to France.
"If the Boko Haram leadership eventually agrees to turn over the Chibok girls to us -- the complete number -- then we may decide to give them (the prisoners) amnesty."
Boko Haram fighters stormed a school in the remote northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok on April 14 last year, seizing 276 girls who were preparing for end-of-year exams in an abduction that shocked the world.
Fifty-seven escaped, but nothing has been heard of the 219 others since May last year, when about 100 of them appeared in a Boko Haram video, dressed in Muslim attire and reciting the Koran.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has since said they have all converted to Islam and been "married off".
- 'Occasional bombings' won't stop -
Buhari, who has promised to stamp out the group's bloody six-year insurgency, said the government would not release any prisoners unless it was convinced it could "get the girls in reasonably healthy condition".
But he cautioned that negotiating with Boko Haram militants was fraught with difficulties.
"We are trying to establish if they are bona fide, how useful they are in Boko Haram, have they reached a position of leadership where their absence is of relevance to the operation of Boko Haram?" he said.
The insurgency, which has claimed more than 15,000 lives and forced 1.5 million others out of their homes, has intensified since Buhari came to power on May 29 on the back of a historic election win.
While the extremist group has lost territory it once controlled in northeastern Nigeria, the group has nevertheless stepped up deadly ambushes in its traditional heartland and across the border in Cameroon and Chad.
Suicide bombers have blown themselves up in bus stations, markets or at checkpoints, while improvised explosive devices have gone off in places like refugee camps, killing more than 1,100 people since Buhari's inauguration, according to an AFP tally. Children have often been used as bombers.
In August, the former military ruler gave a brand new set of military chiefs a three-month deadline to end the insurgency.
He said Wednesday he was confident this deadline would be respected -- but only on Boko Haram's "conventional" assaults and not necessarily on the random suicide attacks that have killed hundreds since he took office.
"The main conventional attacks, where Boko Haram use armoured cars they took from Nigerian troops, or mounted machine-guns on pick-ups and so on, we believe by the end of the three months, we will see the back of that," he said.
"What may not absolutely stop is the occasional bombings by the use of improvised explosive devices," he cautioned.
"We do not expect a 100 percent stoppage of the insurgency."
- Multinational force soon -
Nigeria is already involved in a military offensive launched earlier this year against Boko Haram alongside neighbours Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
But it is due to be replaced by a wider, 8,700-strong force drawing in the four countries plus Benin.
This so-called Multinational Joint Task Force had been due to deploy at the end of July, but has yet to materialise.
"Movement in that area now is extremely difficult, whether it's on foot or vehicular," Buhari said, pointing to the rainy season in the north which is normally ends around September.
"Both Boko Haram and ourselves are trying to see how we can get troops ready on the ground, equipped and so on before the end of the rainy season," he said, adding that by that time, soldiers from the force were expected to be in position.