People hold placards as hundreds of Soweto residents gather at the YMCA in Soweto, Johannesbourg, on May 22, 2014, to demonstrate for the release of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria. The United States has deployed 80 military personnel to Chad to help find the 223 girls still missing since their abduction on April 14, 2014. (Mujahid Safodien / Getty Images)
Nairobi, Kenya — Eighty U.S. Air Force personnel have arrived in Chad and have begun their mission to help locate nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in neighboring Nigeria, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.
The girls and young women were kidnapped on April 15 from a school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok by an Islamic extremist group known as Boko Haram. The group’s leader has threatened to sell most of the estimated 276 schoolgirls still being held into slavery unless the Nigerian government releases detained militants. Reports say some girls were taken across borders into Chad and Cameroon.
Chuck Prichard, a spokesman at the U.S. military’s Africa Command in Germany, said Thursday that the 80 Air Force personnel were moved to Chad from a location inside the United States. Prichard did not say precisely where the 80 were previously stationed.
President Barack Obama told Congress in a letter Wednesday about the deployment. Obama said the service members will help with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the nearby region.
A senior U.S. official said the drone is a Predator and will be in addition to the unarmed Global Hawks already being used. The new flights will be based out of Chad and allow the military to expand its search to that country. Initially the flights were largely over Nigeria.
Lt. Col. Myles Caggins said Wednesday that newly deployed forces will help expand drone searches of the region. About 40 of the troops make up the launch and recovering teams for the drone being deployed there and the other 40 make up the security force for the team.
Meanwhile, many schools across Nigeria closed Thursday to protest the abductions of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the government’s failure to rescue them and the killings of 173 teachers by the Islamic extremists in recent years.
Families of some of the kidnapped girls and their supporters also planned to march Thursday afternoon to the presidential villa in Abuja, the capital, to protest the failure to rescue the girls more than five weeks after they were captured. Police in riot gear and fire engines with water cannon were waiting for the protesters outside the Aso Rock presidential complex.
In the central city of Jos, family and friends searched mortuaries and hospitals for people missing since two huge bombs hit a busy market and bus station two days ago.
The death toll rose to 130, making Tuesday’s blasts in Jos the deadliest bombing yet committed by the Boko Haram extremists, though they have not claimed responsibility.
Many of the dead may never be identified, University of Jos student leader Dickson Odeh told the Associated Press after his group searched several hospital mortuaries. They were able to identify the bodies of seven students, some only from ID papers on mutilated bodies, but still are searching for others, he said.
“It’s horrible,” Odeh said in front of the Jos University Teaching Hospital. “Many bodies are burned beyond recognition.”
Among those identified was Michael Obgole, a medical student. He “was ready to sacrifice at any time,” said a friend, Ejiro Otete “I think our generation will miss somebody like him.”
Inside the hospital, 23-year-old survivor Franklyn Anderson cried into her mother’s shoulder “Mommy, mommy that fire was terrible.”
She said she got hit by the blast because she had a yen for fried yams and wandered into the market to find some.
Lying beside a young woman whose legs were blown off, Anderson thanked God for her survival, intact. “I’ll pull through … because I know God is here for me, He gave me another chance, He gave me another life,” she said.
Traumatized family members at the morgue said they were trying to get police reports and hospital paperwork that would allow them to take the bodies of loved ones for burial.
An earthmover and street cleaners were removing debris Thursday from the marketplace and bus station where the massive explosions brought down multistory buildings.
The school shutdown was organized by the Nigerian Union of Teachers, which said the extremists have killed 173 of its members in recent years. The union also railed against ongoing insecurity that has teachers as well as students going to schools filled with fear.
Boko Haram — the nickname means “Western education is forbidden” — blames Western influences for endemic corruption that keeps most Nigerians in poverty despite the country’s wealth of oil, minerals, agriculture and thriving industries like Nollywood that produce more movies than any in the world including Hollywood and Bollywood.
National and international outrage forced President Goodluck Jonathan to accept international help, mainly technical, intelligence-gathering and surveillance expertise, from several countries this month in the bid to rescue the kidnapped girls.
The U.N. Security Council was expected Thursday to declare Boko Haram a terrorist group and impose sanctions on the al-Qaida-linked extremists. Nigeria, which is serving a two-year term on the council, asked the committee monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida to add Boko Haram to the list of organizations subject to an arms embargo and asset freeze. Unless any of the 14 other council member object by a Thursday afternoon deadline, Boko Haram will be added to the al-Qaida sanctions list.