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The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram released a video on Sunday that purported to show recent footage of dozens of schoolgirls still missing after being kidnapped from the town of Chibok more than two years ago.
The girls, wearing full-body veils but with their faces showing, can be seen seated behind a masked Boko Haram militant who calls on the Nigerian government to release the group’s prisoners in exchange for the girls.
“They should know that their children are still in our hands,” he says in the footage, which was posted on YouTube.
He said others had been married off: “There are a number of girls, about 40 of them, that have been married by the decision of Allah.”
One of the girls was used to issue a plea directly to the Nigerian government to free Boko Haram prisoners.
The militant also claimed that some of the kidnapped girls had been killed in air strikes.
Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Dozens of those kidnapped managed to flee to safety in the following days, but more than 200 are still missing.
While President Muhammadu Buhari has said the group is “technically defeated”, his government has struggled to find the girls, an enduring political embarrassment that highlights Boko Haram’s continued influence in the region.
“This focuses on using the girls as a bargaining chip,” Ryan Cummings, director at intelligence firm Signal Risk, told AFP.
“The video shows that the war effort is hurting the operations of the group,” he said. “It does have a sense of almost desperation from Boko Haram.”
Boko Haram power struggle
The video’s release comes less than two weeks after a statement from longtime commander Abubakar Shekau in which he vows to fight for the leadership of Boko Haram after the Islamic State (IS) group announced that the group had a new leader, naming him as Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the IS group in March 2015 but the extent of their cooperation – and how much influence the IS group has over Boko Haram – remains unclear.
Barnawi has since criticised Shekau’s leadership, which has seen Boko Haram fighters indisciminately kill thousands of people in mosques and markets and raze entire cities to the ground.
Over the past year, the Nigerian military announced the rescue of hundreds of people, most of them women and children, who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
But the missing Chibok schoolgirls were not among them, despite several unconfirmed sightings.
Hadiza Usman, a leader of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, told AFP that he had seen the video and is contacting parents to help confirm the identities of the girls.
“What we are doing at the moment is to get some relatives and the family to confirm fully that some of those girls were abducted,” Usman said.
‘We failed them’
Abdullahi said it was “heartbreaking” to see the video.
“We’ve always believed they will be back, but it’s also painful,” he said, criticising the Nigerian government for being unable to rescue the girls.
“The frustration will always be there. We failed them on so many instances,” Abdullahi said.
“It’s unbelievable that this can happen, that we haven’t been able to make progress after 853 days.”
Boko Haram has been blamed for some 20,000 deaths and displacing more than 2.6 million people since it launched a brutal insurgency to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria in 2009, with the violence often spreading into several neighbouring countries.
Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria all pledged troops last year for a new multinational force aimed at defeating the insurgents.
Since then the group has been pushed out of most of the territory it controlled, though it has continued to carry out suicide bombings in northeast Nigeria and neighbouring nations, focusing on busy public areas such as markets and mosques.