ABUJA, Nigeria – World pressure on Nigeria is mounting over its slow reaction and failure to rescue hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists in a remote part of the country.
Tuesday, President Obama called the abductions "outrageous" and "heartbreaking'' and said Nigeria has agreed to accept U.S. law enforcement and military assistance.
President Obama called the mass kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls "outrageous" and "heartbreaking." He says the United States has already sent a team to help get them back. VPC
"We've already sent in a team to Nigeria. They've accepted our help through a combination of military, law enforcement and other agencies who are going in, trying to identify where in fact these girls might be and provide them help,'' Obama told ABC News.
Distraught parents of the stolen children have charged that officials stalled on action to free them, and international condemnation has grown amid protests in major cities. Demands for action have increased on social media, especially through the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
More than 300 girls were abducted. Of that number, 276 remain in captivity and 53 escaped. Tuesday, an additional eight girls were abducted from a village near a terrorist stronghold in the area.
The schoolgirls have been held for three weeks by the Muslim terrorist organization Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of Christians and Muslims in an attempt to bring strict Islamic law to all of Nigeria. It declared plans to sell the girls or have them married to its members.
"We've always identified them as one of the worst local or regional terrorist organizations there is out there,'' Obama told NBC News. "And I can only imagine what the parents are going through.''
Another militant raid on a town near Cameroon killed some 300 people on Monday, a senator has told the BBC.
Ahmed Zanna said the gunmen arrived in a convoy of vans in Gamboru Ngala during the town's busy market day. They stole food and motorbikes, burned hundreds of cars and buildings during their rampage, the politician told the BBC's Hausa service.
The Nigerian government is defending the country's response to the kidnapping, CNN reports.
"The president and the government (are) not taking this as easy as people all over the world think," Doyin Okupe, a spokesman for Jonathan tells CNN.
"We've done a lot -- but we are not talking about it. We're not Americans. We're not showing people, you know, but it does not mean that we are not doing something." He said two special battalions have been devoted to the search for the missing girls.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said at first the government did not know where the girls were, then said he needed better troops from the West to save them.
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the kidnappings an "unthinkable tragedy'' and "an offense to the conscience of the world.''
"The threat by Boko Haram's leader to sell them in the marketplace reflects the utter absence of humanity,'' Pelosi said.
Protesters have begged for international help, and some Nigerians blame their government.
"The government cannot sit back and watch how these little girls suffer. Their families are traumatized,'' said Nigerian Sen. Ali Ndume, who represents the region. "The government needs to do something extra, even if seeking external support, to ensure these girls are rescued."
Edmond Keller, a UCLA political science professor specializing in Africa, said the episode is part of continuing low-intensity conflicts in the northeastern part of Nigeria, and Nigerians have regarded terrorist violence as commonplace.
"It took something as dramatic as the kidnapping of these young women to really get people's attention,'' Keller said. "Nigerians themselves have been loudly complaining about the government not doing much, but they hadn't protested in the streets up until recently.''
He did not see racism as a factor in the slow international reaction to the kidnappings, but he said that in general, the West is more concerned about human rights in Ukraine, Syria and other world hot spots than in Africa.
"There's a certain amount of racism involved in the tendency to look upon African conflicts as being normal and being a part of the way Africans behave, as opposed to something whites need to be concerned with,'' he said.
Girls from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School are the latest victims in a long-running Islamist militancy straining relations between a north dominated by Muslims and a Christian-centric south.
Boko Haram is especially opposed to educating girls. Its name translates as "Western education is forbidden."
The Chibok girls school is in the remote and sparsely populated northeastern region of the country, Africa's largest with a population of 170 million. Like all schools in Borno state, Chibok, an elite academy of both Muslim and Christian girls, had been closed because of increasingly deadly attacks by Boko Haram. It had reopened to allow final-year students to take exams.
Family members are frantic, pleading for international assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom.
"We have heard from members of the forest community where they took the girls. … They said there had been mass marriages, and the girls are being shared out as wives among the Boko Haram militants," Samson Dawah, whose niece was among those in the mass kidnapping, told The Guardian newspaper.
In New York, London and major Nigerian cities such as Lagos, the capital Abuja and the northern city of Kaduna, protesters in the streets are pressuring the government.
"Bring back our girls — alive!" chanted demonstrators camped outside the Onikan Stadium in Lagos.
After weeks of silence, Nigerian officials promised to step up action. President Jonathan vowed to find the schoolgirls with help from the United States.
"Everything must be done" to free them, he said.
Nigerian Interior Minister Abba Moro told the BBC that the government had to act in a "discreet" way because the militants had threatened to kill the girls if "certain steps" were taken.
Nii Akuetteh, an independent Washington analyst who specializes in Africa, says the government is simply unable to rise to the threat posed by Boko Haram.
"The government can't do anything because of the capabilities of the security services," he said. "For five years, the security services have (not been coping well) with Boko Haram.
"The city (of Abuja) is expecting to host an international conference, and still two bombs have been detonated," he said. "It fits the pattern that they are simply unable to cope."
Under Boko Haram's interpretation of Sharia law, women shouldn't be in school, they should be at home raising children and taking care of their husbands. In an hour-long video obtained by Agence France-Presse, a man identifying himself as Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed responsibility for the abductions and threatened to sell the girls.
"By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace," he says in the video, in which he refers to the captives as his slaves. The video showed militants firing rifles in the air and crying, "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great."
The country has been beset by instability and increasing violence, and Boko Haram is responsible for a spate of bombings in the past year. The group orchestrated a car bomb attack in Abuja on May 1, killing at least 19 people and injuring 60 more. In April, 70 people died in a bomb blast.
Boko Haram murdered 59 schoolboys in February. It separated the boys from the girls, instructing the girls to leave the school and get married before sending them home. The boys were then killed. The movement could be responsible for more than 1,500 deaths this year, according to Amnesty International, a watchdog group.
Africa specialist Ayo Johnson attributes Boko Haram's ability to continually attack and intimidate to its omnipresence in the country.
"Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan summed it best when in 2012 he said, 'Boko Haram has infiltrated the government.It has infiltrated the police, the security forces and even the Cabinet,' " Johnson said. "And I think that summed it up, that Boko Haram was an enemy from within ... that was going nowhere and was bent on causing problems for the Nigerian government."
Contributing: John Bacon in McLean, Va.; William M. Welch in Los Angeles