Nigeria president meets relatives of schoolgirls held hostage

ABUJA - Relatives of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram 100 days ago met with President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday for the first time since the girls were seized.

The much anticipated meeting comes amid reports of a worsening security crisis in the northeast, where Islamists have occupied the town of Damboa and surrounding areas, with the military so far unable to chase them out.

The girls were kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok in the northeast on April 14 and carted away in a convoy of trucks. Of the 276 girls seized in the nightime raid, 219 are still missing.

Jonathan's handling of the hostage crisis has been fiercely criticised, including his failure to visit Chibok to console parents whose daughters are among the hostages.

His office tried to organise a meeting in the capital last week with a small group of the affected families, after he was urged to do so by the Pakistani 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.

An AFP reporter said a delegation of more than 150 people from Chibok met Jonathan, Senate President David Mark and Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno state, the epicentre of the Boko Haram uprising.

Aside from parents of the hostages, the delegation includes some of the 57 girls who escaped their Islamist captors as well as Chibok community leaders, a source at the presidency said on condition of anonymity.

After a brief prayer delivered in front of the media, the group entered closed door talks.

Ayuba Chibok, who has two nieces among the hostages, told AFP that the government chartered a plane from Yola in the northeast to fly to the group to the capital on Monday.

The hostages' plight attracted worldwide attention following the social media and protest campaign called Bring Back Our Girls, which was backed by prominent personalities ranging from US First Lady Michelle Obama to the actress Angelina Jolie.

Western powers, including the US, have offered logistical and military support to Nigeria's rescue effort, but there have been few signs of progress so far, despite assurances from officials that the crisis would soon be resolved.

Islamist advance

Boko Haram, blamed for killing more than 10,000 people in a five-year insurgency, has rampaged across parts of Borno in recent days with little resistance from the military.

An attack that began on Thursday and continued through the weekend displaced more than 15,000 people and is believed to have killed scores in the town of Damboa.

"The insurgents are still in control of Damboa," said Kabiru Ali, a member of the vigilante force in the town who was forced to flee by the Islamist onslaught. They have "hoisted their flags," he added.

There are reports that the Islamists have in some areas sought to establish themselves as the local authority, but the picture remains unclear with terrible phone reception in many of the affected areas.

The military assured it that it soon flush out the extremists.

"We are not conceding any portion of this country to any terrorist group," defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said.