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Obama leads with bid to rescue kidnapped girls

09 May 2014

by a staff reporter and Tim Wyatt

GROWING international outrage over the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram has led to intervention from the United States and the UK, who have both dispatched teams of military and law-enforcement experts to find the girls.

The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, has been heavily criticised by the parents of the girls for the government's slow response to the abductions. Protests were held last weekend in Nigeria and in cities across the world, including London and Los Angeles, condemning the kidnapping and calling for the girls' release.

About 230 schoolgirls - aged between 16 and 18 - were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Borno state, in the north of Nigeria on 14 April. On Monday, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to "sell" the girls. There are fears that they have already been smuggled over the border into Chad and Cameroon.

Since the mass kidnapping, another eight girls have been abducted by suspected militants in the north-east.

David Cameron made the offer of British help in a phone call with Mr Jonathan on Wednesday, shortly after telling the House of Commons the abductions were an "act of pure evil". 

Reports suggested the team of experts will focus on strategy and co-ordination, rather than joining the search for the girls on the ground.

On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the kidnapping as an "atrocious and inexcusable act". In a statement, he said: "I appeal to those who have taken these schoolgirls to release them immediately, and unharmed.

"This is in a part of Nigeria I have visited and in a country whose people are close to my heart. Let your hearts be open in compassion and mercy to those who have suffered so much."

President Barack Obama described the kidnappings as "heartbreaking" and "outrageous", and denounced Boko Haram as "one of the worst regional . . . terrorist organisations".

He said, however: "This may be the event that helps to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that's perpetrated such a terrible crime."

A petition created on the website change.org calling for more to be done to bring about the safe return of the girls had more than 554,000 signatures by Thursday.

An online campaign to raise awareness of the kidnapping, dubbed #BringBackOurGirls, has travelled across the world on social media, with even Michelle Obama, the First Lady in the US, tweeting a picture of herself holding a piece of paper with the slogan. 

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, told Vatican Radio on Wednesday that the response to the kidnapping had shamed Nigeria. 

"Our president seems to be impotent. We need to see action. We know that Boko Haram have no sense of humanity but that they should be able to cart away almost 300 schoolchildren in the northeast of Nigeria without any trace of where these children are really baffles us."

On Sunday, the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba called for "all of Africa, and especially South Africa" to rise up and demand the release of the girls.

During his sermon, he called on the congregation to "voice your outrage at the killings in northern Nigeria, and at the recent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls there".

The convenor of the International Anglican Women's Network, Anne Skamp, has written to the Network's members urging them to put pressure on their governments and Church leaders to find the girls.

She wrote: "Please request that your parish, diocese and province include prayers for the girls and their families at worship this Sunday 11 May, which also is celebrated as Mothers' Day in many of our communities."

A member of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has reportedly released a list of the names of the kidnapped girls, claiming that 163 of the girls are Christian and 15 are Muslim. A separate statement from CAN said: "The Church in Nigeria is hereby called to a lamentation prayer."

There are conflicting reports of how many girls are being held. Some reports suggest that a number of girls escaped from their kidnappers and made their way home.

On Thursday, news reports suggested that Boko Haram had attacked the town of Gamboru Ngala on Monday afternoon, killing as many as 300 people and burning buildings to the ground.

Some reports suggested the security forces which had been guarding the town were deployed elsewhere, searching for the kidnapped schoolgirls.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), which represents more than 500 million Christians worldwide, has promised to help mobilise the support of religious communities to secure the release of the schoolgirls.

On Monday, the general secretary of the WCC, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, wrote a letter to Mr Jonathan expressing "profound concern" about the abduction, and encouraging "swift and peaceful" action to restore the students back to their homes.

He wrote: "This tragic situation . . . touches the World Council of Churches directly, as many who have lost their daughters are members of our church families in Nigeria."

Dr Tveit said that the WCC is ready to assist in "mobilising the inter-religious and international communities to seek effective and peaceful means towards safely restoring these students to their homes, loved ones and communities".

On Tuesday, the widely-respected authority in Sunni Islam, the Al-Azhar Mosque released a statement condemning Boko Haram's actions as contrary to the principles of Islam.

The Nigerian police have offered a $300,000 reward for information leading to the girls' rescue.

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