WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. will do everything it can to help Nigeria find nearly 300 teenage girls missing since they were kidnapped from school three weeks ago by an Islamist extremist group that has threatened to sell them.
Obama said the immediate priority is finding the girls, but that the Boko Haram group must also be dealt with.
“In the short term our goal is obviously is to help the international community, and the Nigerian government, as a team to do everything we can to recover these young ladies,” Obama said in an interview with NBC’s “Today,” in some of his first public comments on what he said was a “terrible situation” in the West African nation.
“But we’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that … can cause such havoc in people’s day-to-day lives,” Obama said of Boko Haram.
The brazen April 15 abduction has sparked international outrage and mounting demands, including by some in Washington, for Nigeria to spare no effort to find and free the girls before they can be sold into slavery or otherwise harmed.
Nigeria’s police have said more than 300 girls were abducted from their secondary school in the country’s remote northeast. Of that number, 276 remain in captivity and 53 managed to escape.
Obama said he was glad the Nigerian government was accepting help from U.S. military and law enforcement advisers.
“Obviously, what’s happening is awful, and, as a father of two girls, I can’t imagine what their parents are going through,” he told CBS News in an interview. Obama said the U.S. has long sought to work with Nigeria to contain Boko Haram.
“You’ve got one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations in Boko Haram in Nigeria. They’ve been killing people ruthlessly for many years now and we’ve already been seeking greater cooperation with the Nigerians,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News.
He said the kidnapping and subsequent outrage over Nigeria’s inability to rescue the girls “may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.”
The technical experts heading to Nigeria will include U.S. military and law enforcement personnel skilled in intelligence, investigations, hostage negotiating, information sharing and victim assistance, as well as officials with expertise in other areas, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
U.S. armed forces were not being sent, Carney noted.
Obama commented during a series of previously arranged television interviews conducted in the White House Rose Garden, shortly after the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution urging the girls’ safe and immediate return. Some lawmakers also observed a moment of silence on the Capitol steps calling for their release, and dozens of people also protested outside the Nigerian Embassy in Washington.
All 20 female senators urged Obama in a letter to pursue severe international sanctions on Boko Haram. A smaller group of mostly male senators urged Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to address the root causes of unrest in his country.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. had been in touch with Nigeria “from day one” of the crisis. But repeated offers of U.S. assistance were ignored until Kerry got on the phone Tuesday with Jonathan amid growing international concern and outrage over the fate of the girls in the weeks since their abduction.
Kerry said Nigeria apparently wanted to pursue its own strategy, but now realizes more needs to be done.
“I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort,” Kerry said at a State Department news conference. “And it will begin immediately. I mean, literally, immediately.”
A statement from Jonathan’s office said the U.S. offer “includes the deployment of U.S. security personnel and assets to work with their Nigerian counterparts in the search and rescue operation.” The statement added that Nigeria’s security agencies are working at “full capacity” to find the girls and welcomes the addition of American “counter-insurgency know-how and expertise.”
Nigeria’s Islamic extremist leader, Abubakar Shekau, has claimed responsibility for the abduction and has threatened to sell the girls. Shekau also warned that Boko Haram will attack more schools and abduct more girls. Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.”
The State Department on Tuesday warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Nigeria.