Nigeria's president says Boko Haram is 'clearly' an al Qaeda operative
Lori Hinnant and Sylvie Corbet, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, May 17, 2014 8:40AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 17, 2014 8:03PM EDT
PARIS -- Boko Haram has ample funds, highly sophisticated weaponry and advanced training with some of the world's most experienced terrorists, the French president said Saturday as he and African leaders grappled with how to combat the Islamic extremist group whose reach extends to five countries.
At the summit in Paris intended to hammer out a plan to find and free 276 schoolgirls being held hostage by Boko Haram, intelligence officials from the U.S., Europe and Africa shared information while heads of state and top diplomats tackled policy.
Hours after yet another attack in a Boko Haram stronghold -- this time in Cameroon near the border with Nigeria -- the leaders agreed to improve policing of frontiers, share intelligence, and trace the weapons and cash that are the group's lifeblood.
"This group is armed, with heavy weapons of an unimaginable sophistication and the ability to use them," said French President Francois Hollande.
He said the weapons came from chaotic Libya, and the training took place in Mali before the ouster of its al Qaeda linked Islamist leaders. As for the money, Hollande said its origins were murky.
"Boko Haram is acting clearly as an al Qaeda operation," said Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who had only reluctantly accepted outside help after years of insisting the group was a local problem.
Cameroon, which French officials said until recently also treated Boko Haram as an issue involving only Nigeria, has become increasingly involved. The attack late Friday against a Chinese engineering firm's camp left at least 10 people missing and one person dead.
The camp was in the same nearly trackless parkland where the girls were first spirited away after an attack on their school in northern Nigeria, highlighting Boko Haram's ability to cross borders unimpeded.
Hollande said the effort to find them and ultimately combat Boko Haram will involve sharing intelligence, protecting borders, and quick action in a crisis. An intelligence cell involving French, British and American agents is already operating out of Nigeria.
Hollande also emphasized that Boko Haram had clearly established ties with other terror groups in Africa, making it a concern throughout the continent and beyond.
That could provide an opening for UN sanctions against the group to freeze its assets and impose travel bans against members. Wendy Sherman, a U.S. diplomat who was at Saturday's talks, said the sanctions could come as soon as next week.
"I can't imagine any country who would not support this designation," she said.
Surveillance jets have joined the search and Hollande left open the possibility that French fighter jets could be deployed.
Boko Haram has offered to exchange the captive girls for jailed insurgents, while threatening otherwise to sell them into slavery.
"Boko Haram's strategy, contrary to all civilization, is to destabilize Nigeria and to destroy the fundamental principles of human dignity," Hollande said during the working lunch. "More than 200 young girls threatened with slavery is the proof."
Officials have said there will be no Western military operation. British officials say Jonathan has ruled out swapping prisoners for the girls.
"There are many ways to bring this horrific situation to a close, but when and if we know where they are then the Nigerians will have to decide how to proceed," Sherman said.
On Friday, Jonathan cancelled a trip to the town where the girls were seized, apparently due to security concerns.
Signs are growing that some Nigerian troops are near mutiny, complaining they are overwhelmed and outgunned by Boko Haram. Soldiers have told The Associated Press that some in the ranks actually fight alongside the group. Last year, Jonathan said he suspected that Boko Haram members and sympathizers had infiltrated every level of his government and military, including the Cabinet.
That complicates attempts to share intelligence. The U.S., France and Britain have all sent experts to help find the girls, but French and American officials have expressed concerns about how any information might be used.
The northeastern region where the girls were kidnapped has suffered five years of increasingly deadly assaults by Boko Haram. Thousands have been killed, including more than 1,500 civilians this year.
France has negotiated the release of citizens held by Boko Haram in Cameroon and officials intended Saturday's summit to draw the outlines of a more international approach.
The summit concluded with promises to co-ordinate border patrols, pool intelligence and track trafficked weapons.
Chinese state media reported that 10 people were missing in the Friday night attack on the camp in a region where Boko Haram has previously abducted foreigners, including a French family of seven and a priest.
Hollande's administration successfully negotiated the release of the French citizens, and officials in Paris said France's experience dealing with Boko Haram as well as its good relations with the governments concerned were the impetus for the summit.
China is a major investor in Cameroon, helping build infrastructure, public health projects and sports facilities and importing crude oil, timber and cotton.