The State Department said U.S. intelligence officials are investigating a video that surfaced Monday that appears to show dozens of Nigerian schoolgirls who were seized by a militant Islamist group in a case that's drawn international outrage.
The video offers the first public images of the girls in the captivity of Boko Haram, a militant jihadist group that’s killed more than 1,000 people and operates relatively freely in Nigeria's lawless northeast corner. The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, also appears separately in the video, repeating a threat to enslave the girls, but also suggesting he was willing to release them in a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government.
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"We will not let them go until you release our brothers,” Shekau says, repeatedly.
Dozens of girls are shown wearing the loose, flowing robes of ultraconservative Muslims. One girl recites a prayer from the Quran, Islam's holy book, and others say they've converted from Christianity. There's no clear indication of the location of the video, which was filmed outdoors in the rugged, arid terrain associated with northern Nigeria and neighboring states.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at the midday briefing that there was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the 27-minute clip and added that U.S. intelligence officials were combing through it for clues in the case. The United States has dispatched a small contingent of military personnel and hostage negotiators to Abuja, the capital, to join an international effort to help the Nigerian government find and rescue the girls.
The video's image of so many girls in one place raises questions about U.S. analysis that Boko Haram by now had split the girls into several smaller groups and perhaps had smuggled some across the porous borders and into Chad or Cameroon. More than 100 girls - about half the number abducted April 14 - appear in the video, sitting cross-legged and reciting a prayer.
The BBC quoted Nigerian Internior Minister Abba Moro as rejecting a deal with Boko Haram, saying it was "absurd" for a terrorist group to set conditions.
At the State Department, Psaki reiterated the U.S. position of refusing to negotiate with terrorist groups. There are fears that paying ransoms to such groups only fuels such kidnappings, which can be lucrative for militants.
"In terms of the question you had about the reports of a trade offer, as you know, Nigeria is in the lead," Psaki said. "We are simply supporting their efforts. We, as you know – also, our policy is to deny – the United States policy, I should say, is to deny kidnappers the benefits of their criminal acts, including ransoms or concessions, so I don’t have any other particular update on this report."
Some 300 teenage girls were seized in a mass abduction April 14 at their school, which had opened only for exams but had been closed like many others because of the insecurity of the region. About 50 girls managed to escape.
The case has drawn international attention in large part thanks to a social media campaign using the Twitter and Facebook hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.