Red Cross role represents first official confirmation that Nigerian government is in talks with terror group, despite vow that it would not negotiate.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has become involved in a secret prisoner swap deal to secure the release of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Telegraph has learned.
|Some of the 220+ girls held captive by Boko Haram|
The Red Cross officials have also visited a number of other jails, identifying a list of 16 senior commanders that Boko Haram wants freed in exchange for its hostages.
The group is thought to be holding more than 220 schoolgirls captive, having kidnapped them from the north-east town of Chibok in mid-April.
The ICRC's role in the talks represents the first official confirmation that the Nigerian government is actively engaged in talks with Boko Haram over the release of the girls. Publicly, Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, has maintained that the government would never agree to any kind of negotiations. Like most politicians, Jonathon lies relentlessly. Nevertheless, he has little choice but to negotiate, there are no other reasonable options. I think he would rather approach the February elections having retrieved the girls than with them still being captive.
Jonathon should go after some of the billions of dollars pilfered by corrupt officials, military officers and business people and use it to supply the military with much better equipment after the girls are released. Then quietly moved tens of thousands of them into northeast Nigeria and take Boko Haram on everywhere they go.
The ICRC, whose global remit includes prisoners' welfare, has agreed to act as an independent party in ensuring that the two sides, neither of which trust each other, honour any prisoner swap agreement. It has also offered to monitor and oversee any co-ordinated exchange of the schoolgirls for the militants.
|ICRC international headquarters, Geneva|
The negotiations began around two months ago, when representatives of the ICRC, along with government officials and intermediaries from Nigerian civil rights groups, met with a senior Boko Haram leader currently serving a life sentence in Kuje prison, near the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The Boko Haram leader, identified only as "Omar", acted as a spokesman for all the group's detainees.
A source close to the talks claimed that at one point, the discussions came close to reaching a deal, with delegations despatched to the city of Yola, in north-east Nigeria, in preparation for picking up the girls.
"The insurgents wanted to release the girls on a piecemeal basis, but the government turned down that offer," the source said. "There was also some opposition from some factions inside of the government to doing any kind of prisoner swap at all, as they feel the Boko Haram prisoners are hardened criminals who have committed heinous crimes."
Mr Eno said the 16 prisoners that Boko Haram wanted released were not well-known names among the Nigerian public, but were still senior figures in the group. "They were senior enough that some other commanders who had taken their place are worried about what will happen to their own positions if they are released," he said. So, a prisoner swap might well sew discord within Boko Haram.
He added that one of the reasons for the breakdown in the agreement was that in some cases, the ICRC and prison authorities had been unable to match the names on the Boko Haram list to prisoners held in any jails. He said was possible that this was because the names were simply wrong or inaccurate, but that the group had inferred that the government was trying to hold some prisoners back, and had therefore refused to release all the girls at once.
Western diplomats in Abuja also told The Telegraph recently that they doubted the girls would ever be released because of Western pressure on the Nigerian government not to negotiate with a terrorist group as brutal as Boko Haram.
The ICRC has a track record in trying to assist people held captive by insurgent groups. In Afghanistan, its staff have made discreet visits to private jails run by the Taliban, even as the Taliban engage in fighting with coalition forces.
A spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva would neither confirm nor deny its involvement in the talks, but said it was willing to help "in facilitating the transfer of people back to families if necessary".
He added: "We have a dialogue with all the different parties, and if there is any way we can help as a neutral humanitarian organisation, we will."
Those of you who pray, please be in prayer that a deal can be reached and executed to return the girls.