Nigeria opens door for talks with kidnappers

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ABUJA, Nigeria -- U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flew over Nigeria in search of the nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls Tuesday, a day after the Boko Haram militant group released the first evidence that at least some of them are alive and demanded jailed fighters be swapped for their freedom.

A Nigerian government official said "all options" were open -- including negotiations or a possible military operation with foreign help -- in the effort to free the girls, who were shown fearful and huddled together dressed in gray Islamic veils as they sang Quranic verses under the guns of their captors in a video released Monday.

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.

The abduction has spurred a global movement to secure the girls' release amid fears they would be sold into slavery, married off to fighters or worse following a series of threats by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

Protesters marched Tuesday through the streets of the capital, Abuja, to demand more government action to find and free the girls, who are believed to be held in the vast Sambisi forest some 20 miles from the eastern town of Chibok, where they were seized from their school April 15.

A U.S. reconnaissance mission was being carried out by a manned MC-12 surveillance aircraft, which is based in Niger, according to senior U.S. defense officials in Washington. In addition to the turboprop model that has seen heavy use in Afghanistan, U.S. officials were also considering use of drones.

Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, on Tuesday was in Abuja meeting with officials at the U.S. Embassy, according to the defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Nigerian military said in a statement that Gen. Rodriguez visited Nigeria's defense headquarters to discuss U.S. support for Nigeria's campaign against the Boko Haram militants, who have killed more than 1,500 people this year in a campaign of bombings, massacres and kidnappings.

Nigeria's government initially said there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram, but that stance appeared to have been relaxed amid growing public outrage at home and abroad over the failure to rescue the girls.

In the video, a camouflage-clad Mr. Shekau appeared separately from the girls, an assault rifle slung over his chest, and warned menacingly: "I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured." He said the girls, most of whom are Christians, had converted to Islam.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful," has waged a five-year campaign of bombings, massacres and abductions that has killed thousands in its drive to impose an Islamic state on Africa's most populous nation. It has tried to root out Western influence by targeting schools, as well as attacking churches, mosques, government buildings and security services in the country of 170 million, divided between a predominantly Christian south and Muslim north.

On Tuesday, President Goodluck Jonathan asked the National Assembly to extend the state of emergency in Borno and two other northeastern states for another six months. The emergency, first imposed in May 2013, and extended in December, has been fiercely opposed by many northern politicians, who argue that it has created great hardships for the local population while allowing the military to commit rights abuses even as it fails to curtail the insurgency.

Nigerian security forces have moved quickly to force the militants from urban centers, but have struggled for months to dislodge them from rural areas and hideouts in mountain caves and the dense Sambisa forest bordering Cameroon.

Britain and the United States are now actively involved in the effort to rescue the missing girls.



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