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Nigeria officials split over how to free abducted girls

ABUJA, Nigeria -- A Nigerian military official's terse assertion Monday that the armed forces know the whereabouts of 276 abducted schoolgirls drew surprisingly little public reaction in the capital yesterday, but it added a mysterious twist to a string of contradictory official narratives about efforts to find the missing girls.

The startling comments by Nigeria's chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, did not appear to signal a breakthrough in the dramatic saga of the girls, who have not been seen since they were seized by Boko Haram extremists in mid-April. But the remarks suggested that the security forces are less worried about the girls' fates than previously indicated and are waiting for the right time and method to rescue them.

Asked about the assertion that the girls had been located, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday, "We don't have independent information from the United States to support these reports."

At an impromptu encounter Monday with military supporters gathered outside the defense ministry, Badeh said, "We know where the girls are, but we cannot tell you." He said the military was reluctant to free the victims by force for fear they would be harmed in the process.

Meanwhile, Mark Simmonds, Britain's minister for Africa, said President Goodluck Jonathan on May 14 told him he wouldn't enter talks about swapping Boko Haram detainees for the girls.

Nigerian officials added no information or details yesterday to Badeh's brief remarks.

At a rally in Abuja, the capital, more than 500 people gathered to express support for both Jonathan and the armed forces.

Observers said they were more confused than ever about the Nigerian government's continued mixed signals and seeming shifts on whether to hold talks with the insurgents.

The most widely reported mediation attempt involved Nigerian journalist and exile Ahmad Salkida, who once was threatened by the government for interacting too closely with Boko Haram members. According to Nigerian media, Salkida was called home by the government in early May to act as a go-between. He was then said to have found the insurgents willing to talk about swapping the girls for 100 of their detained associates and that he had seen a group of the girls safe and in good health.

Officials denied that any such effort had taken place, while some media reported that Jonathan had abruptly called off the initiative.

Previous attempts by the Nigerian military to free hostages have ended fatally, including the deaths of two engineers, a Briton and an Italian, in Sokoto in March 2012.

With Bloomberg News and AP

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