More than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls held hostage in Nigeria came agonisingly close to freedom before government officials called off a deal to swap them for jailed Islamist terror suspects, The Mail on Sunday has been told.
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 11th 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.
Abubakar Shekau is said to be enraged by the broken deal
President Goodluck Jonathan
It was agreed there that no deals should be struck with terrorists and that force should instead be used against them.
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 the Nigerian capital 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.
‘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,’ sources said.
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.
Mr 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.