ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan promised on Monday that more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militants would soon return home, teenage Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said after meeting him.
Malala, who became a global celebrity after surviving being shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, was visiting Nigeria to support an international campaign for the release of the teenage students abducted in mid-April by the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.
“The president promised me ... that the abducted girls will return to their homes soon,” Malala, who has called the 219 missing students her “sisters”, told a news conference after a 45-minute meeting with Jonathan at the presidential villa.
The Pakistani teenager, who turned 17 on Saturday, also appealed directly to Boko Haram to stop its attacks and release the schoolgirl captives, saying Islam was a “religion of peace” that allowed education for girls as well as boys.
“Release your sisters. Release my sisters and release the daughters of this nation. Let them be free,” she said at an event in Abuja to mark U.N.-declared “Malala Day”, established in her name to promote the education of girls and women.
At the weekend, Malala met parents of the schoolgirls snatched on April 14 from the northeastern village of Chibok by Boko Haram militants fighting to establish an Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria.
The Nigerian girls’ plight triggered an international #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign supported by Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie.
This has drawn attention to the war in Nigeria’s northeast, where Boko Haram, which is inspired by the Taliban and whose name means “Western education is sinful”, has killed thousands and abducted hundreds since launching an uprising in 2009.
With the girls still missing three months after their kidnap, Jonathan faces criticism at home and abroad over the deteriorating security situation in Africa’s leading oil producer and biggest economy.
Nigeria is receiving intelligence and surveillance assistance from the United States, Britain, France, Israel and other allies but has so far shown little progress in getting the Chibok girls back or in halting almost daily militant raids.
Suspected Boko Haram fighters on Monday attacked a village on market day in northeast Nigeria not far from the Cameroon border, killing at least five local people and burning homes and shops, a resident and a security source said.
The resident from Ville, near Lassa in the south of Borno state, Suleiman Haruna, told Reuters 20 Boko Haram fighters were killed when local vigilantes fought back but this could not be independently confirmed. The Islamist group has often attacked local rural markets, opening fire on traders and shoppers.
Malala told reporters she would hold the Nigerian leader to his pledge that the girls would be home soon.
“I will from now be counting days and will be looking. I can’t stop this campaign until I see these girls return back to their families and continue their education,” she said.
She added that Jonathan had also promised that once the missing girls were rescued, they would be given scholarships to go to school in any part of Nigeria.
Pressed by journalists, Malala said Jonathan described the girls’ situation as “complicated” and that their lives could be put at risk by a military rescue attempt.
“But the president said these girls are his daughters and he is pained by their sufferings and that he has his own daughters and he can feel what they are feeling,” she said.
The Nigerian presidency said Jonathan assured Malala that his government “was very actively pursuing all feasible options to achieve the safe return of the abducted girls”.
“The great challenge in rescuing the Chibok girls is the need to ensure that they are rescued alive,” Jonathan said, according to the presidency statement.
Pakistani Taliban militants shot Malala for her passionate advocacy of women’s right to education. She survived after being airlifted to Britain for treatment, and has since become a symbol of defiance against the militants operating in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
She has won the European Union’s prestigious human rights award and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Now considered the main security threat to Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency is growing bolder. Police said on Saturday they had uncovered a plot to bomb the Abuja transport network using suicide bombers and devices concealed in luggage at major bus stations.
Additional reporting by Lanre Ola in Maiduguri; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Ralph Boulton