In what appears to be the first major break in the case of the 276 abducted Nigerian girls, the leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram said on video that he would be willing to release the girls if the Nigerian government freed all imprisoned militants—the first sign that the group is open to negotiation.
In the 17-minute video viewed by reporters from Agence France-Presse on Monday, about 100 girls are shown wearing full veils and praying. Three of the girls speak in the video, according to AFP, with one saying the girls have not been harmed by the kidnappers and two girls saying they were Christians who have converted to Islam.
“These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with. … we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims,” the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, says in the video.
Nigeria’s Interior Minister Abba Moro rejected the deal, reportedly telling the BBC that it was “absurd” for a “terrorist group” to try to set conditions.
Though it has been reported that the majority of the abducted girls are Christians, there are Muslims among them. According to the reporters who viewed the video, the girls appeared calm.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday that he was optimistic they would find the girls because of all the assistance the country has received from abroad, including teams from the U.K. and U.S. already on the ground, and an Israeli counterterrorism team on its way. While 276 girls had been abducted, about 50 have escaped, leaving the number missing at about 226.
French President Francois Hollande has inserted himself into the situation, offering to host a summit in Paris next Saturday with Nigeria and its neighbors to discuss Boko Haram and the country’s security challenges.
“We are deeply in sorrow,” Mary Dawa, whose 16-year-old daughter, Hawa Isha, is missing, told the New York Times from Chibook, the desolate northeastern Nigerian village where the girls were abducted. “Every day, I am in deep sorrow. I don’t even feel like eating.”
“These are small girls who are used to seeing their parents every morning,” Zanna Madu Mai Usman Chibokma, an official in Chibok, told the Times. “Now they are in the bush. What conditions are they being subjected to?”
The Times described Chibok and its surroundings as an isolated area littered with “the shells of other schools burned by Boko Haram, the carcasses of cars the militants attacked, and empty villages, their buildings also destroyed, whose residents have fled.”
“Little traffic roams this road; the Nigerian police say the Islamists still lurk in the surrounding bush,” according to the Times. “The military presence is light. There is an occasional checkpoint — in Damboa, a half-hour drive away on the dirt road, there is a military base, but its men did not engage with the kidnappers. This area, for hundreds of miles around, has been under siege by Boko Haram for five years, with no movement toward resolution.”
Amid the outrage over the abductions, last week Boko Haram militants attacked Gamboru Ngala, a remote state capital near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, which has been used as a staging ground for troops in the search for the girls. The militants killed about 310 people and many of them were burned alive.
“Every day when I wake up and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria, when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids. And having to think through what levers, what powers do we have at any given moment, I think drop by drop by drop that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive,” President Obama said last week.