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Nigeria president meets relatives of hostage schoolgirls

22 July 2014, 22:44

Abuja - Relatives scarred by Boko Haram's mass abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls recounted their nightmare to President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday, in their first meeting with Nigeria's leader 100 days after the shocking attack.

Jonathan, whose handling of the hostage crisis has been fiercely criticised, held talks in the capital Abuja with the families of the teenagers who are still missing as well as girls who escaped their Islamist captors.

Some of those who travelled from Chibok, the remote northeastern town assaulted by Boko Haram on April 14, burst into tears when the president entered the room, an AFP reporter said.

The talks were closed to the media but speaking afterwards one participant said the exchange was cordial, if inconclusive.

"It was a very peaceful and loving meeting. No arguments," said Ayuba Chibok, who has nieces among the hostages.

Jonathan "said he would use every capability for the girls to come back, for me, I want to wait to see if there is improvement," Chibok added. "I want to see action."

They 'spoke their minds' 

There was a chance the meeting could turn hostile amid outrage over the response by the government and military to the April raid that saw 276 girls carted away on trucks from their school by the extremists. Fifty-seven girls have since escaped.

Jonathan hardly commented on the attack for weeks, while the military failed to launch a significant search-and-rescue operation and had to retract a statement claiming that all but eight of the girls had been freed.

Global condemnation of the attack then spread, backed the social media and a protest campaign Bring Back Our Girls, which drew support from prominent personalities including US First Lady Michelle Obama and actress Angelina Jolie.

Nigeria has since accepted Western military and technical help with the rescue effort, but there have been few signs of progress.

Jonathan assured the Chibok delegation that seeing the hostages "brought out alive is the main objective of government," presidential spokesman Reuben Abati told journalists.

The president listened as a group of girls described their escape from the Sambisa Forest Reserve, a Boko Haram stronghold in northeastern Borno state, where many believe the hostages are being held, Abati said.

Various people touched by the crisis "spoke their minds," he added.

Presidential aides tried to organise a meeting in Abuja last week with a small group of the affected families, after Jonathan was urged to do so by the Pakistani girls' education activist Malala Yousafzai.

Malala, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012, was in Abuja on her 17th birthday to campaign for the girls' release.

The families balked at the invite, saying that if Jonathan was unwilling to travel to Chibok, he should bring all of the relatives to his office to meet with them as a group.

Sleeping in the bushes 

Boko Haram, blamed for killing more than 10,000 people in a five-year insurgency, has relentlessly attacked civilians across the northeast in recent months.

In the latest violence, the militants stormed the town of Damboa at sundown on Thursday and went on a rampage through the weekend, forcing more than 15,000 people to flee.

The militants have reportedly raised their flags above public buildings in the town and are trying to establish themselves as the local authority.

Defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said Monday that more troops are being sent to the area, vowing that the military is "not conceding any portion of this country to any terrorist group."

Ayuba Chibok said the meeting with Jonathan also addressed the deteriorating security situation in the northeast, where the militants have seemingly proved capable of attacking at will.

Civilians have often been left without military protection and crudely-armed vigilantes often serve as the only protection against Islamist fighters carrying anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

Aside from bringing the girls home, Jonathan was urged to make life safer for the families affected by the kidnapping, Chibok said.

"We are tired of sleeping in the bushes," he told AFP



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