Nigeria says girls kidnap a turning point in Boko Haram conflict

ABUJA - Nigeria's president said Thursday that Boko Haram's mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, as world powers joined the search to rescue the hostages.

President Goodluck Jonathan's administration has struggled to contain Boko Haram's bloody five-year uprising and experts have questioned whether Nigeria can end the violence without help.

"I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria," Jonathan told delegates at the World Economic Forum, thanking Britain, China, France and the United States for their offers of help to rescue the hostages.

The four world powers have pledged varying levels of assistance to track down the girls whose April 14 mass abduction from a school in Chibok in northeastern Borno state has sparked global outrage.

Jonathan's comments echoed those of US President Barack Obama earlier in the week.

Obama said the Chibok kidnappings "may be the event that helps to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation".

The abductions have also led to a growing social media campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls joined by public figures and celebrities.

US actress Angelina Jolie on Thursday blamed a "culture of impunity" for the kidnapping adding that the world had to "make sure this stops happening and that this is not something that people feel they can get away with..." Most of the insurgents' recent attacks have targeted the remote and impoverished northeast, but two car bombings on the outskirts of the capital Abuja in the last month underscored the grave threat the Islamists pose.

Jonathan had hoped that the World Economic Forum would highlight Nigeria's economic progress and its recent emergence as Africa's top economy, but headlines have remained focused on Boko Haram.

Holding the summit in Abuja despite the recent violence amounted to victory over the extremists, the Nigerian leader said.

"If you had refused to come because of fear the terrorist would have jubilated," he told the more than 1,000 delegates from over 70 countries.

In the latest massacre by the Islamists - which was confirmed by Jonathan's office on Thursday three days after news of the attack emerged - hundreds of people were killed in the town of Gamboru Ngala, also in Borno, Boko Haram's historic stronghold.

World joins hostage search 

Nigeria has typically resisted security cooperation with the West, which analysts say has hampered efforts against the militants who have killed thousands since 2009.

American officials have acknowledged that the US military had relatively weak ties with Nigeria and unlike many other African states, the government in Abuja has shown little interest in major training programmes.

"In the past, the Nigerians have been reluctant to accept US assistance, particularly in areas having to do with security," said John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria.

Some have voiced hope that collaborating on the hostage rescue may improve Nigeria's broader capacity to defeat Boko Haram.

Washington plans to send a team of military personnel as well as specialists from the Justice Department and the FBI, US officials said.

Britain said it will send experts in planning and coordination, France has offered a specialist team, while China said it would provide intelligence support and relevant satellite imagery.

Pressure on regional allies 

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Jonathan Thursday met with the US ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle "to discuss modalities for the actualisation of the offer made by President Barack Obama to assist Nigeria in rescuing the girls," a statement from his office said.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon also spoke with Jonathan on the phone and assured him of the organisation's readiness to help Nigeria in the rescue of the girls.

The US and community leaders in Chibok have expressed concern that many of the 223 girls being held by Boko Haram may have been trafficked across the border into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

Those fears were heightened by a video released by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in which he threatened to sell the girls as "slaves." As concern grew over the girls' fates, the latest massacre by the Islamists near the northeastern border with Cameroon highlighted the regional nature of the conflict.

After storming Gamboru Ngala in armoured vehicles on Monday, the gunmen burnt traders alive in their stalls and murdered entire families.

Area Senator Ahmed Zanna put the death toll at 300, citing information provided by locals, in an account supported by other witnesses.

Jonathan spokesman Doyin Okupe claimed Zanna's death toll was inflated but said militants, "struck in large numbers (and) killed a lot of people," in the first comments from the presidency on the attack.

Apprehending the militants was impossible, he said, because "they disappeared into Cameroon after the attack." Asked if Nigeria's neighbours were doing enough to help contain the violence, Okupe said: "No, we are not there yet." "In fact, we are far, far, far from there... (but) every effort is being made to ensure that our neighbours really are supporting us in this fight," he added.

A leader from one of those northeastern neighbours, Niger's Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, insisted his country would provide all necessary support.

"We will pull out everything necessary to put an end to this," Rafini told the WEF.

"Security issues are cross-border issues... We should be very concerned."