LAGOS--Boko Haram, which abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Borno a month ago, has backed down on its demand for a release of its top commanders by government before the abducted girls could be released.
It has also emerged that President Goodluck Jonathan has banned all his ministers and presidential spokespersons from commenting on any issue relating to the campaign by the Federal Government to rescue the girls. This came as the Defence headquarters warned against unauthorised visits to the areas of operation by tourists and journalists, saying such venture was risky.
The Telegraph of London, in an exclusive report, quoted sources close to the militant Islamist group as saying that the sect has abandoned its demands for its top commanders to be released that could see "gradual" release of the schoolgirls as early as next week.
In a significant concession, the group was said to have abandoned demands for its top commanders to be released, seemingly aware that this would be politically impossible for the Federal Government.
The Telegraph first reported details of Boko Haram's offer of an imminent prisoners exchange last Tuesday, when sources close to some of the militants' families said that a senior Islamic cleric from the northern part of the country would be appointed to mediate on its behalf with the government.
According to the Telegraph, the cleric has since been joined by a former aide to one of the group's founders. No man has been named, possibly for their safety. While the Federal Government has insisted that it is not willing to enter prisoners swap negotiations, the source claimed that dialogue had already been going on in secret for several days.
"Contrary to the public rejection of any swap deal by the Nigerian government, there are some on-the-ground talks taking place," the Telegraph quoted its source as saying adding that "an agreement was reached about two or three days ago in principle to start releasing some prisoners."
He said that among the prisoners that the group wanted released would be wives and families of Boko Haram fighters, some of whom have been taken into custody by the Federal Government in order to exert emotional pressure on the fighters. "The group also has a list of lower-level fighters that it wants released as well, but they are not high-profile ones," the source added.
He said that in exchange, Boko Haram was willing to start a "gradual" release of around 100 of the girls - possibly beginning as early as the coming week. "Depending on how the other side responds, the girls will be released in small groups. They will be left at a certain safe location, and the authorities will then be told as to where they can pick them up from."
Details of the offer emerged as officials investigated reports that Boko Haram was responsible for the kidnapping of up to 10 Chinese workers in neighbouring Cameroon, where the group now also has a presence.
On Saturday, Nigeria and its neighbours, including Cameroon, Benin, Chad and Niger declared "war" on Boko Haram after an international summit in Paris hosted by the French President, François Hollande.
The offensive will involve co-ordination of surveillance efforts aimed at finding the girls, the sharing of intelligence, the tightening of border controls, and a regional counter-terrorism strategy with Western help.
The Telegraph source said Boko Haram leaders had been upset by the declaration of "war" at the Paris summit, and that this could encourage it to withdraw its offer.
At the summit, the countries agreed to forge a regional counter-terrorism strategy with expertise and training support from Britain, France, the European Union and the United States.
Britain will host a follow-up meeting to discuss the Boko Haram crisis next month. It is thought that the kidnapped schoolgirls are being held somewhere in either North-East Nigeria or across the border in Cameroon.
China confirms abduction of 10 nationals
The Chinese embassy in Cameroon confirmed that 10 of its workers had gone missing on Friday at a site near the town of Waza, 12 miles from the Nigerian border and close to the Sambisa forest, a Boko Haram stronghold.
Lu Qingjiang, the embassy's political counsellor, said that one Chinese worker was also injured in the attack, China's Xinhua state news agency reported.
Ten vehicles belonging to China's state-run construction company Sinohydro, which is repairing roads in Cameroon, were also taken, Xinhua said.
Mr Lu called on the Cameroonian authorities to "not put the lives of Chinese nationals missing in danger in case actions of liberation be launched", Xinhua said.
Jonathan bans ministers, aides
Meanwhile, President Jonathan has asked all ministers and presidential spokespersons to stop commenting on any issue relating to the campaign by the Federal Government to rescue the school girls.
Sources told Vanguard that Jonathan gave the directive following alleged uncoordinated responses or comments by some ministers and special advisers to criticisms by some Nigerians over government alleged poor handling of the terrorist activities in the North-East with particular reference to the abducted students.
Jonathan has, however, directed the formation of the National Information Centre with the Director General of the National Orientation Agency, NOA, Mr Mike Omeri as chairman.
According to sources, the ban on the ministers and special advisers from speaking led to the alleged stoppage of two press conferences which were to be addressed by the Minister of Information, Mr Labaran Maku recently by the Department of State Services, DSS.
The DSS also reportedly stopped another news conference which the President's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, reportedly organised on the Chibok matter.
In compliance with the Presidential directive, the National Information Centre now meets every day to exchange ideas and take common positions on issues to be addressed by Omeri who is the spokesman.
Members of the committee include Omeri, the Information minister as well as the spokespersons for the military (Maj.General Chris Olukolade);DSS (Marilyn Ogar); Frank Mbah (police) as well as their counterparts in other sister services.
However, the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki; Service Chiefs, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar as well as the United States Ambassador and his UK counterpart are allowed to interact with the committee with a view to sharing ideas or privileged information with the committee. Others include the Director in the Federal Ministry of Information, Peter Adamu and his foreign affairs counterpart.
Military warns against visit to operation areas
A statement signed by the Director of Defence Information, Major General Chris Olukolade reads: "The Defence Headquarters has noted the presence of a large number of tourists, journalists and adventurers of diverse interests moving about in areas where security operations are currently ongoing especially in Adamawa and Borno states without the necessary security cover or clearance.
"This trend constitutes unnecessary risk to the persons especially the foreigners involved. It is also an undue obstruction to operations".
IG orders strengthens security around schools in Makurdi
Also, following an alarm by authorities of the Government College, Makurdi, that Boko Haram plans to attack the school and abduct its students, Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar has ordered the strengthening of security in all boarding schools in and around Makurdi, the capital of Benue State.
A statement signed by the Force Public Relations officer, CSP Frank Mba said: "This is coming on the heels of recent threat letter purportedly issued by elements claiming to be Boko Haram members to two all-boys Secondary Schools-Government College, Makurdi, and Mount Saint Gabriel College, Makurdi."