May 8 14 1:26 PM

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Missing Nigerian schoolgirls: Boko Haram claims responsibility for kidnapping

Islamist militants' leader threatens to sell the more than 270 girls abducted in north-east Nigeria on 14 April

Monica Mark in Abuja

The Guardian, Monday 5 May 2014

The leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has said that more than 270 schoolgirls snatched from their dormitories were "slaves" whom he planned to sell in the market.

"I abducted your girls," a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the group's leader, said in a video seen by the Guardian. "I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off and marry them off. There is a market for selling humans.

"Women are slaves. I want to reassure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam," he added, in an apparent reference to an ancient tradition of enslaving women captured during jihad, or holy war.

Speaking in northern Nigeria's Hausa language during a rambling hour-long speech, he threatened further attacks on schools and warned the international community not to get involved in Nigeria. Shekau has previously called western education "a plot against Islam" and urged his fighters to kill students and teachers.

"I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine," he said at another point in the video.

The chilling message came as police questioned 'Gbenga Sesan – the activist behind the popular Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls – and two women who helped organise protests calling for the government to do more to rescue the girls.

Protesters call for the release of the missing schoolgirls at the state government house, in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar were detained after attending a meeting with the president's wife, Patience, who, in a bizarre twist, suggested the mass abductions had never happened and were instead a conspiracy to derail her husband's presidential campaign for elections next year.

At least 300 teenage girls were snatched in a dawn raid in Chibok, in Boko Haram's north-eastern heartland of Borno state, on 15 April. President Goodluck Jonathan did not publicly comment on the abductions for two weeks and the government's clumsy handling of the case has triggered protests across almost every major city.

Jonathan pledged on Sunday evening that the government would return the girls to their families. "This is a trying time for this country. It is painful," he said.

Diplomats say the government is in talks with the UK and the US for assistance in bolstering the country's security.

Mallam Mpur, whose two nieces are among the missing, said parents were reeling from reports the girls had been sold as "brides" to the extremists. He could not yet face telling the parents and relatives who gathered at his home for daily updates and support about the latest threats, he added. "In a few hours it will be exactly three weeks since our girls were taken away – we are counting every hour," he said.

"All I can say is, as parents we are desperate and begging. If the Nigerian government cannot help us, there is no shame in appealing to other African countries or the international community for help."

Some parents say their attempts to pass on information to the authorities have been fruitless. Farmer Dauda said his daughter called him from a forest training camp for militants last week. "One of the Boko Haram people came on the phone and told us not to worry; that our daughter is in safe hands," he told the Guardian. "The man told us, we have warned you not to send your children to school and this is the consequence. Then he told us that if we are patient and follow their orders, we will see our daughter again. But the government are not interested in hearing when we try to speak to them."

About 50 girls escaped in the confusion, some by jumping off trucks and fleeing for miles on foot through the dense Sambisa forest. Two girls have since died from snakebites, according to intermediaries in contact with the militants.

A demonstrator in London protests against the failure of the Nigerian government, to rescue the schoolgirls abducted by Boka Haram extremists. Photograph: Ruth Whitworth/Demotix/Corbis

Another Chibok elder, whose house was burned down during the five-hour raid by Boko Haram, said life was continuing in a state of terror. "Any little noise we hear at night, we all run out into the bush fearing for our lives," said the villager, adding that some households had resorted to organising their own night watch rotas.

The Christian Association of Nigeria published a list on Sunday of 180 Christian girls – about two-thirds of the total 276 – among the missing.

"Daughters of Zion taken captive, to be treated as slaves and sold into marriage to unclean people," the list was subtitled.

Its release has been widely criticised by Nigerians in a sign of how anger at the abductions has bridged the sectarian tensions that sometimes flare up between an evenly divided Muslim and Christian population.

In a televised broadcast on Sunday, the first lady, who holds no official office, was seen alternately weeping and berating community members during a meeting to discuss the kidnappings. She warned against further protest marches: "You are playing games. Don't use schoolchildren and women for demonstration again. Keep it to Borno, let it end there," the official News Agency of Nigeria reported.

An official from the school who was at the meeting said: "She told us we were not patriotic; that we were members of Boko Haram ourselves and we wanted to disgrace the country."

The president's approval ratings have taken a battering as security has deteriorated in the runup to elections next year. In a weekly media chat late on Sunday, Jonathan denied that security had worsened, despite two bomb blasts on the outskirts of Abuja, the capital, which left 105 dead last month. "I believe we are succeeding" he said.

The government has launched a massive security operation in the capital this week as it prepares to host the World Economic Forum, at which dignitaries and heads of state will discuss Africa's positive growth story.

The glitz of the meeting will elude most ordinary Nigerians. Sitting forlornly on a plastic chair outside an Abuja police station, one woman who had travelled from Chibok to protest said: "We don't know why the government is treating us like we are less than animals. It is just really painful."

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.