Abuja: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday ordered top security chiefs and officials to secure the safe release of 223 schoolgirls abducted three weeks ago by suspected Islamists, his spokesman said.
Gunmen believed to be Boko Haram Islamists stormed the girls’ boarding school on April 14, forcing them from their dormitories onto trucks and driving them into the bush.
Anger at the government’s ineffectual response has fuelled protests at home and abroad, including in New York where dozens of Nigerians staged a protest march on Saturday demanding action to free the children.
Jonathan held closed-door talks with military and security service chiefs as well as senior officials, Borno state’s governor and police chief, and the head of the school in Chibok where the girls were seized, Reuben Abati told reporters.
Under pressure over the mass abduction, it was the first time the Nigerian leader brought together all key players involved in the search.
“The president has given very clear directives that everything must be done to ensure that these girls must be brought back to safety,” Abati said.
Until now Jonathan had only conferred with his security chiefs.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, desperate parents on Saturday called for Nigeria to seek foreign help to secure the girls’ release.
“By all means, let’s get the support we need from global players,” said a former World Bank vice-president, Obiageli Ezekwesili, in an interview in support of the distraught parents.
She was speaking at a sit-in by dozens of mothers in Abuja, who have vowed to keep up the pressure until their children are brought home.
“What these women are saying is that they want their daughters freed,” she added.
Nigerian police on Friday said kidnappers were still holding 223 out of 276 girls seized from the school in the country’s northeast.
Officials in Borno state had previously given lower figures on the number being held.
Boko Haram’s name translates as “Western education is forbidden”, and it has repeatedly attacked schools during an insurgency aimed at creating a strict Islamic state in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.
The Islamists have set schools on fire, massacred students in their sleep and detonated bombs at university campus churches, but a massive kidnapping specifically targeting girls is unprecedented.
The abduction is one of the most shocking attacks in Boko Haram’s five-year uprising, which has left 1,500 people dead this year alone.
A car bombing in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Thursday that killed 19 has fuelled fears the Islamist group may be shifting its focus outside of its historic base in Nigeria’s remote northeast.
US Secretary of State John Kerry vowed Saturday that Washington would do “everything possible” to help Nigeria deal with Boko Haram militants and win the girls’ safe release.