By Uduma Kalu with agency report

BUT for a last minute change of mind by President Goodluck Jonathan, the abducted Chibok girls would have been freed, UK media reported yesterday.

The reports said a deal for the release of some of the abducted schoolgirls was close to being secured when the Nigerian government called it off, BBC and Mail on Sunday said.

Some of the girls were set to be freed in exchange for imprisoned Islamist militants. Boko Haram group snatched more than 200 girls from a school on April 14. The papers said that officials have held talks with the group to secure the release of the schoolgirls, noting that an intermediary met Boko Haram leaders earlier this month and visited the location in Borno where the girls were being held.

*Shekau and Jonathan
*Shekau and Jonathan

The deal was to set some of the girls free in exchange for the release of 100 Boko Haram members being held in detention, BBC said, but the government cancelled the planned agreement shortly before the swap was due to take place.

Though reasons for the withdrawal are unclear, The Mail on Sunday said, “A Nigerian journalist trusted by both the government and extremists from Boko Haram acted as go-between, risking his life on a one-man mission to enter the gunmen’s lair and broker an agreement, according to security sources. But last Saturday, at the eleventh hour, officials scrapped the exchange in a telephone call from a crisis summit in Paris where Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan met foreign ministers including those from Britain, the United States, France and Israel.

“It was agreed there that no deals should be struck with terrorists and that force should instead be used against them. The U-turn is said to have enraged Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. Insiders believe that the cancellation of last Saturday’s plan and the ensuing stand-off now puts the girls’ lives in even greater danger. An intelligence source told The Mail on Sunday, ‘The next video we see from the terrorists could show the girls being killed one by one.’

“Sources in Abuja described how Shekau had agreed to bring the girls out of their forest camps in the remote north-east of the country in the early morning and take them to a safe location for the prisoner swap.” The sources were quoted as saying, “They would have been dropped off in a village, one group at a time, and left there while their kidnappers disappeared. There was to be a signal to a mediator at another location to bring in the prisoners. About 2,000 Boko Haram members are currently detained.

“One hundred non-combatant, low-level sympathisers were to be freed and the two groups brought together in a convoy of buses accompanied by a hand-picked go-between, respected Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida. The plan had been agreed in tortuous negotiations in response to worldwide outrage over a night-time raid on a school in the town of Chibok on April 14 when the girls were abducted from their dormitories.

Letter of indemnity
“Salkida was born in the north-eastern state of Borno, where Boko Haram originated. He has known its leaders all his life and has unprecedented access. He has been arrested on several occasions accused of being a Boko Haram sympathiser, and he fled with his family to Dubai two years ago. But two weeks ago, he was summoned out of exile by President Jonathan’s aides. He initially feared he might face arrest, but was then given a letter of indemnity signed by the president when he flew to Nigeria.

“Sources said Salkida was able to travel by taxi to the group’s forest camp to talk to Shekau two weeks ago. ‘His mission was secretive and dangerous,’ they said. ‘He is probably the only civilian with access to Shekau. There is trust between them and Salkida had only one aim – to get the schoolgirls out.

‘He reported afterwards that the group of girls he saw were alive and well, and being adequately fed and sheltered. They told him all they wanted was to go home.’ Salkida’s mission was complicated by the chaos surrounding the Nigerian government’s pronouncements about negotiations with the terrorist group.

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