Washington: The United States has sent 80 service members to Chad in Central Africa to support a growing international effort in neighbouring Nigeria to help locate and rescue the schoolgirls abducted by an Islamist extremist group last month, White House officials said.
The US military personnel are not ground troops. They are mostly Air Force flight crew members, maintenance specialists and security officers for unarmed Predator surveillance drones that will help search for the more than 260 Nigerian girls seized by the Boko Haram group.
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Nigeria kidnapping: US deploys troops
The United States is sending troops to Central Africa to help rescue a group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic militants, while a teenage survivor of a previous Boko Haram attack has told US congressmen of her ordeal.
''These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,'' read the White House statement, which formally notified Congress about the deployment.
For the past 10 days, the US military has been flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over heavily forested regions in north-eastern Nigeria, where intelligence officials believe the captors are hiding the girls. But the aircraft have had to fly hundreds of kilometres to reach the search area, limiting the time they can spend over the region.
In contrast, the Predators will operate from a large air base in N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, very near the search area across the border. France, the former colonial power in Chad, has long stationed fighter jets and other aircraft at the same air base.
''The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required,'' said the White House statement, which was released on Wednesday.
The deployment to Chad augments a team of about 30 specialists from the State Department, the FBI and the Pentagon, who have been sent to Nigeria to advise officials there. About half are military personnel with medical, intelligence, counterterrorism and communications skills.
However, US military officials have emphasised the difficult nature of the mission. On Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, called the search for the missing girls tantamount to finding ''a needle in a jungle''.
US officials have said the kidnappers may have broken up the hostages into smaller groups and dispersed into a wider area. Some officials have speculated that the girls could have been smuggled into neighbouring countries.
Paul Lubeck, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and who has done extensive research in Nigeria, said the country's security forces are up against a formidable group in Boko Haram. ''These guys are better organised, more highly motivated and have better arms than the Nigerian military,'' he said. ''The Nigerian military is decayed.''
Additionally, because the Nigerian force has a history of brutality, US military advisers face restrictions in the assistance they are able to provide. As part of an agreement reached this week, American military personnel are permitted to share some information – such as aerial imagery – but not all raw intelligence.
As the US steps up intelligence-gathering efforts there, Professor Lubeck said, there's the possibility that Nigerian forces could mishandle it. ''Any time the Nigerian military attempts to intervene to release hostages, the hostages are killed,'' he said. ''You might get them the intel, but how to get them released safely is the real challenge.''
The deployment comes as Boko Haram assaulted three villages in northern Nigeria, killing 48 people, residents said on Wednesday. The attack came hours after twin bombings claimed at least 118 lives in the city of Jos, in an attack the government blamed on the Islamic extremists.
Jos is tense with fears the attack could inflame religious rivalry. The city in central Nigeria sits on a volatile fault line dividing Nigeria's mainly Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south and has been a flashpoint in the past for deadly conflict between adherents of the two religions.
Boko Haram, the group suspected in the attack, wants to impose an Islamic state under strict Shariah law in Nigeria, though half the country's 170 million people are Christians.
Officials in at least three other central and central-north states have suggested the extremists are feeding into tribal and religious tensions to spread the insurgency from their stronghold in Nigeria's north-east into an area where thousands have been killed in recent years in disputes over land, water, religion and tribe.
Reuters, and wires