In Nigeria, more girls taken by radicals

U.S. sending resources to aid in government's search

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ABUJA, Nigeria -- A second kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria's northeast by Islamist militants put new pressure on the country's troubled government, which had been hoping to showcase its emergence as Africa's largest economy this week but instead has been forced to confront its failure to contain a growing insurgency in its north.

Men suspected of being fighters from the radical group Boko Haram kidnapped 11 more girls, local officials said Tuesday, an intensification of its campaign against female education and the Nigerian government since the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls three weeks ago.

The spectacle of redshirted protesters in the streets of the capital, angry at the government for its tepid response to the crisis, put President Goodluck Jonathan under an uncomfortable spotlight as executives from across the world arrived in private jets to attend the Africa meeting of the World Economic Forum, the continent's answer to Davos.

Authorities in Abuja -- and particularly the military, itself implicated in numerous massacres of civilians -- appear to be floundering in their response to a crisis that social media has transformed into a cause célèbre. The new kidnappings underlined the inability of the Nigerian government to protect civilians from the growing insurgency. Not a single girl has been rescued so far.

In a sign of deepening global concern, the United States offered Tuesday to provide a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers along with hostage negotiators and psychologists, to assist the Nigerians in recovering the girls -- an offer that was accepted by the Jonathan government. U.S. officials said "military resources" would not be included, but President Barack Obama weighed in, vowing to "do everything we can."

A viral social media campaign, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, has brought new infamy to Boko Haram, which has been operating in Nigeria for more than a decade. Boko Haram's goal, never clearly enunciated, is to radically undermine the secular Nigerian state.

But never in a five-year campaign of bombings, civilian massacres and assaults on state schools have the attacks so shaken the government. The heightening concerns have led to daily anti-government protests, which continued Tuesday with a demonstration outside defense headquarters in Abuja. In a sign of the government's nervousness, several protest leaders were briefly arrested Monday.

In the latest kidnappings, more girls were taken from their homes late Sunday night in the villages of Warabe and Wala, said Hamba Tada, an official in the area. The militants descended from surrounding hills heavily armed, stealing grain and livestock belonging to villagers, forcing the girls ages 12 to 15 into an 18-seat bus, and warning locals not to warn authorities.

Another local official confirmed the new abductions, though the area's top police official, Lawan Tanko, denied they had taken place. "By our record, it's not true," he said in an interview from Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.

In Abuja, limousines ferrying business-suited delegates to the World Economic Forum are flooding the capital and filling its luxury hotels, but public discussion and newspaper headlines are dominated by little else but the kidnappings.

On Monday, a video surfaced in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, in a rambling and vituperative diatribe, claimed responsibility for the April 15 abduction of the nearly 300 girls and threatened to sell them into slavery. The video has sharpened the sense of urgency about finding the girls quickly and has added to deepening embarrassment of the Jonathan government, even as it tries to present a progressive new face at the forum.

UNICEF has reported that the second kidnappings involved at least eight girls seized in their homes in Borno to prevent them from attending school. It called the latest abduction "an outrage and a worsening nightmare for the girls themselves, and for the families of the more than 200 girls who have been stolen from their communities in the last several weeks." Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa, said in a phone interview that the information was obtained from the agency's contacts for the area, which has been riven for years by Boko Haram attacks.

Boko Haram has frequently targeted schools, which it sees as symbols of the secular government's overreach. Male students have been slaughtered, while female students have been let go after admonitions to return to their families, abandon their studies and get married. The latest kidnappings appear to represent a hardening of the militants' line, though not a wholesale departure from it.

"This has been going on. It's been a common practice. They come and attack a place and seize girls. They just have been doing this," said Pogu Bitrus, an official in the town from which the schoolgirls were taken, Chibok.

The military -- which has responded brutally to Boko Haram's campaign, itself engaging in large-scale atrocities against civilians -- has so far proved incapable of finding any of the kidnapped girls, some of whom may already have been taken across the border to Cameroon, in a remote, hilly and wild corner of West Africa. The number of missing schoolgirls has been revised by officials more than once, while some escaped shortly after the abduction.

It is unusual for the Nigerian military, usually fiercely protective of its sovereignty, to accept offers of outside help, as it has apparently done in this case.

The latest kidnappings, not yet acknowledged by the government, differed somewhat from the wholesale abduction three weeks ago of girls seized as they were taking their school exams. Then, the militants disguised themselves as soldiers.

In this case, "they descended from the hilltops of Gava, Hwa'a and Chikedeh with several AK-47 rifles hanging over their shoulders," said Mr. Tada, the local official. "They evacuated some of our grains, and carried away livestock into a pickup van. The girls were hurled into an 18-seater bus before they fled," he said.


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