Nigeria said on Friday it had agreed to a ceasefire with Islamist militants Boko Haram and reached a deal for the release of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the group six months ago.
There was no immediate confirmation from the rebels, who have wreaked five years of havoc in Africa’s top oil producer and triggered an international outcry by seizing the girls from the northeast town of Chibok in April.
“I wish to inform this audience that a ceasefire agreement has been concluded,” said the head of Nigeria’s military, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, adding the deal had followed three days of talks with the militant sect.
The U.S. State Department said it “could not independently confirm” a deal had been struck between Nigeria and Boko Haram. The United States is among several Western allies helping Nigeria’s military with training and intelligence support to tackle Boko Haram.
But French President François Hollande welcomed the “good news” and told a news conference in Paris that the girls’ release “could happen in the coming hours and days.” France has been involved in negotiations that led to the release of several of its citizens kidnapped by Boko Haram in Cameroon.
Neither Mr. Hollande nor Nigerian government officials gave any details.
Nigerian government spokesman Mike Omeri said the deal covered the release of the captives and Boko Haram had given assurances “that the schoolgirls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well.”
But a precedent of previous government and military claims about an end to the deadly five-year conflict and the fate of the missing teenagers left many observers cautious.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is expected to declare his bid for re-election in coming weeks, and positive news about the hostages and the violence would likely give him a political boost. He has been pilloried at home and abroad for his slow response to the kidnapping and his inability to quell the violence, the biggest security threat to Africa’s biggest economy.
Apart from one appearance on a Boko Haram video, the Chibok girls have not been seen since the brazen night-time raid on the town near the Cameroon border, although police and a parent said last month that one of the victims had been released.
Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “Western education is sinful,” has killed thousands of people in its fight to create an Islamic state in the vast scrubland of Nigeria’s impoverished northeast. A senior Nigerian security source confirmed the existence of talks but said it remained unclear whether Abuja was negotiating with self-proclaimed movement leader Abubakar Shekau, or another faction within the group.
“Commitment among parts of Boko Haram and the military does appear to be genuine. It is worth taking seriously,” the security source told Reuters.
Several rounds of negotiations have been attempted in recent years but they have never achieved a peace deal, partly because the group is believed to be deeply divided.
“There are some talks but it depends on the buy-in of the whole group. I would be surprised if Shekau had suddenly changed his mind and is ready for a ceasefire,” the source added.