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Nigeria And Neighbours To Join Forces Over Abducted Girls

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan meets with leaders of neighbouring states in Paris on Saturday for talks aimed at forging a common strategy against Islamist militants holding more than 200 schoolgirls.

At a half-day summit hosted by French President Francois Hollande, Jonathan will be pressed to seek much closer cooperation with neighbouring Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin in the fight against Boko Haram.

The group, which is waging a deadly campaign to create an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, has achieved a new level of notoriety since it seized the girls a month ago.

Hollande discussed the conference and the hunt for the girls with US President Barack Obama in a phone call Friday, the White House said.

Wendy Sherman, a senior official at the US Department of State, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague will attend the talks which will also review the preliminary work done by specialist teams sent by Britain, France and the United States to help the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to locate the missing girls.

Experts say the group's ability to wreak havoc across large swaths of mostly Muslim northern Nigeria is strengthened by the porous nature of the borders in the region, which makes it easier for militants to escape from the security forces and to pick up supplies, most notably arms.

A long-running territorial dispute has soured relations between Nigeria and Cameroon, hampering any steps towards joint action against the militants.

"Boko Haram represents a risk to the stability of every state in the region, and the leaders of these countries have to be aware of that," said a French diplomat.

International support

The international community has been mobilised over the plight of the girls. Among the resources already put at Nigeria's disposal have been US drones and surveillance aircraft.

Further Western military involvement however is not on the agenda, officials say.

"Nobody is talking about Western military intervention: the Nigerians neither need nor want that," a French defence official said.

Instead, the emphasis is on sharing intelligence and knowledge about dealing with groups like Boko Haram. France has particular experience in that area, having recently secured the release of a French family that was kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram fighters in Cameroon and then held in Nigeria for two months.

France is deeply involved in the region. Impoverished Niger is a strategic supplier of uranium for the French nuclear industry and Paris has troops deployed on peacekeeping duty in the Central African Republic and in Mali, where it sent a force last year to combat Al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized control of much of the north of the country.

Although the French believe that the intervention in Mali inflicted significant damage on groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), military planners remain concerned about the implications of potential alliances being forged between militants in northern Nigeria, Mali and the north of the profoundly unstable Central Africa.

"If they all link up, that would be very problematic, for France, for Europe and the rest of the world," said one planner.

French military officials believe Boko Haram's links to Mali-based groups are key to it being able to source weapons, many of which originate in Libya.

In terms of concrete help for Nigeria's anti-terrorism efforts, Paris has signalled that it could put Rafale fighter planes and drones it has based in the region at the disposal of Jonathan's government for surveillance activities.

Jonathan under pressure

The Nigerian leader is under pressure to be seen being proactive over the abducted girls after coming under fire for cancelling a visit to their hometown Chibok which had been scheduled for Friday.

The visit was reported to have been called off for security reasons -- which reignited criticism of the administration's handling of the crisis that erupted when the 276 girls were abducted on April 14. Some subsequently escaped their captors but 223 are still missing.

The girls' fate has become the focus of a global campaign and Jonathan has been frequently depicted as being indifferent to the suffering of their families.

"If, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he is afraid to visit Chibok because of security fears, he is simply telling the hapless people in the northeast that he cannot protect them and they should resign themselves to their fate," said Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders pressure group.

Robert Menendez, the chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said this week that Nigeria had been "tragically and unacceptably slow" to tackle the crisis.


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