DAKAR, Senegal -- In a video message apparently made by the leader of Nigeria's Islamist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls nearly three weeks ago, called the girls slaves and threatened to "sell them in the market, by Allah."
"Western education should end," Mr. Shekau said in the 57-minute video, speaking in Hausa and Arabic. "Girls, you should go and get married." The Islamist leader also warned that he would "give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12," he said.
The message was received Monday by news agencies in Nigeria and is similar to previous videos purportedly from Boko Haram. It is the first time the group has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, which have gripped Nigeria, ignited a rare anti-government protest movement and embarrassed the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, who has so far been unable to rescue any of the teenage girls. They were abducted April 14 from their school in a remote corner of northeastern Nigeria. By some counts 276 remain missing.
The incident is the latest assault by Boko Haram, which has committed dozens of massacres of civilians in its five-year insurgency in Nigeria's north, with the aim to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the Nigerian government. Earlier this year, for instance, more than 50 teenage boys were slaughtered -- some burned alive -- at a government school in the north. That incident, like many others, was quickly forgotten in Nigeria and was barely noticed outside of it.
But the kidnappings of the girls have attracted rare international attention, with foreign governments weighing in and the State Department also expressing concern.
The government's helplessness so far -- the army first claimed to have rescued the girls, then retracted the claim -- has shaken Mr. Jonathan's administration, and the president has spoken of reaching out to other governments, including the United States, for help in rescuing the girls -- a rare admission of incapacity for a Nigerian leader.
In a vivid demonstration of how sensitive the issue has become for the government, two women protesting its response to the kidnappings were arrested Monday after a meeting in Abuja, the capital, with the president's wife, according to protest leaders. The country is preparing to host a major economic summit this week, making the unresolved kidnappings all the more embarrassing for officials there. Last week, protesters marched on the country's National Assembly in Abuja, and it was the leaders of those marches who apparently angered Patience Jonathan, wife of the president.
Ms. Jonathan had invited mothers of the abducted girls to come to Abuja from Chibok, the remote northeastern town where the girls were seized, according to Hadiza Bala Usman, organizer of the protests. But the "timeline was too short," Ms. Usman said -- there are no flights, and Chibok is several days' journey by road.
The mothers from Chibok "delegated the responsibility" of meeting with Ms. Jonathan to neighbors who were already in Abuja. But when the president's wife discovered that the women with whom she met were not mothers of the missing girls, she became enraged, said Ms. Usman and Pogu Bitrus, a Chibok official who knows both women. Ms. Usman said Ms. Jonathan told the women, "You lied to us by saying you are a mother. Because of that, we are detaining you." he said Ms. Jonathan "ordered that they be arrested for impersonation."
Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati could not be reached Monday. A spokesman for Patience Jonathan was quoted in media reports as denying that anybody had been arrested.
The message from the Boko Haram leader once again highlighted the extent to which secular, Western-style schools are a principal target of the group, whose name roughly translates as "Western education is forbidden," in an amalgam of pidgin English, Hausa, one of the most commonly spoken languages in Africa, and Arabic. Mr. Shekau emphasized that the girls were taken because they were attending such a school.
"Western education is sin, it is forbidden; women must go and marry," he said in the video message. Mr. Shekau also tried to justify the abduction of the girls by noting that Boko Haram members remain imprisoned in Nigeria.