The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for negotiations with the “utterly merciless” Islamic extremists who kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Nigeria, amid reports that some have already been sold as “brides” for £8.
The Most Rev Justin Welby, who has experience of negotiating with violent groups in Nigeria, acknowledged that finding a way to end the attacks by the Boko Haram extremists would be “infinitely more difficult than Northern Ireland”.
His intervention came as David Cameron said yesterday that he had offered Nigeria the use of British counterterrorism and intelligence experts to secure the girls’ release.
The archbishop previously spent two years negotiating an amnesty with violent groups in the Niger Delta. He has also met one of the groups that was a forerunner of Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is forbidden”.
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Lambeth Palace last night ruled out any personal intervention in negotiations but said that the archbishop was “in regular contact with the Anglican Communion in Nigeria”.
The archbishop told the BBC that the schoolgirls were “in the hands of a very disparate group, which is extremely irrational and difficult to deal with and utterly merciless in the example it has shown in the past”.
“I think negotiation there is extremely complicated, though it needs to be tried,” he added. “There needs to be active negotiation, active contact, with all the different layers.”
The archbishop, a former oil executive who joined the church in his 30s, said that devising an effective plan to try to stop further attacks by the group was “infinitely more complicated than, say, Northern Ireland where it took us a very long time to develop an effective strategy”.
Supporters turn to Boko Haram because of immense poverty, high youth unemployment and the group’s promises of social change delivered through the barrel of a gun, he said.
The leader of the world’s Anglicans said that it was “always a worry” that Christians in Nigeria might take up arms to defend themselves against the Islamic group.
“They have a right to defend their lives and the lives of their children and their families,” he said. “But at the heart of Christian teaching is the example of Jesus, who said, ‘Forgive your enemies’ and forgave his own enemies on the Cross.”
Mr Cameron said yesterday that he had called the Nigerian president offering British counterterrorism and intelligence experts to help a larger American team: “I said to President Jonathan, ‘Where we can help, please ask, and we will see what we can do.’ ”
A British team, including officials from the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Metropolitan police, is working with specialists from the US and other countries to co-ordinate search efforts.
Mr Cameron said: “This is not just a problem in Nigeria. We’re seeing this really violent extreme Islamism. We see problems in Pakistan, we see problems in other parts of Africa, problems in the Middle East.
“Also, let’s be frank, here in the UK there is still too much support for extremism that we have to tackle, whether it’s in schools or colleges or universities or wherever.”
The kidnapped girls were seized in the middle of the night from their school in the town of Chibok on April 14 and taken to the Sambisa forest. Reports suggest that some have been sold into forced marriages and smuggled across the border into Cameroon and Chad.
About 50 of the girls have been seen in the Central African Republic after being taken to the town of Birao on April 30 by armed men, it was reported yesterday.