Hunt for abducted Nigerian girls 'unlikely to have happy ending'

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Hunt for abducted Nigerian girls 'unlikely to have happy ending'
A woman with a sticker on her head bearing the slogan 'Bring back our girls' marches for the release of the more than 200 abducted Chibok school girls in Lagos on May 29, 2014, during a demonstration by civil society groups and celebrities of the film and entertainment industries to press for the girls' release, seven weeks after their abduction by Islamist militant group Boko Haram, and on the occasion of Nigeria's Democracy Day. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed on May 29 total war against terrorism as the country's security forces stepped up efforts to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamists 45 days ago. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 28: Students from Midreshet Shalhevet High School for Girls protest outside the Nigerian consulate for more action to be taken to rescue the school girls kidnapped by the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram In Nigeria on May 28, 2014 in New York City. More than 300 teenage girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their school in Chibok, Nigeria on April 15, 2014. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: French President Francois Hollande welcomes Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (R) as the host of the security summit on Nigeria to discuss combating the dreaded Boko Haram militant group on May 17, Paris. Mustafa Sevgi-Anadolu Agency
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: French President Francois Hollande (L2) welcomes the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy (M) and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (R2) as the host of the security summit on Nigeria to discuss combating the dreaded Boko Haram militant group on May 17, Paris. Mustafa Sevgi-Anadolu Agency
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: (L-R) Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou, Cameroon's president Paul Biya, Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan, French president Francois Hollande, Chad's president Idriss Deby Itno and Benin's president Thomas Boni Yayi attend a joint press conference at the end of the Paris Summit for security in Nigeria, Saturday, May 17, 2014, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France.This African security summit is hold to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: Tchad's President Idriss Deby is escorted by French president Francois Hollande as he leaves the African security summit on May 17, 2014, at the Elysee palace in Paris, France. The African security summit is being held to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: (L-R) Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou, Cameroon's president Paul Biya, Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan, French president Francois Hollande, Chad's president Idriss Deby Itno and Benin's president Thomas Boni Yayi attend a joint press conference at the end of the Paris Summit for security in Nigeria, Saturday, May 17, 2014, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France.This African security summit is hold to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: (L to R) Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan (R) speaks with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague (L) and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (C) prior a family photo during an African security summit on May 17, 2014, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. This African security summit is held to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
(LtoR) Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou, Chad's president Idriss Deby Itno, Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan, France's president Francois Hollande, Cameroon's president Paul Biya, and Benin's president Thomas Boni Yayi pose for a photo during an African security summit to discuss the threat of Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram to the regional stability, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 17, 2014. West African leaders met with French President Francois Hollande to bolster cooperation with Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram Islamists after the abduction of 200 schoolgirls shocked the world. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 17: French President Francois Hollande (R) welcomes Cameroon's President Paul Biya (L) upon his arrival to an African security summit on May 17, 2014, at the Elysee palace in Paris, France. This African security summit is hold to discuss the Boko Haram threat to regional stability. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
Protestors hold placards as they demonstrate outside Nigeria House in central London on May 9, 2014, to demand the return of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Boko Haram Islamist group. Nigeria's military had advanced warning of the April 14 attack by Boko Haram that led to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls but failed to take immediate action, Amnesty International said. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the kidnapped school girls by the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram, during a press availability at the US State Department in Washington, DC, May 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 09: Protesters calling for the release of a group of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls gather outside Nigeria House on May 9, 2014 in London, England. 276 schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school on 14 April, 2014 in the town of Chibok in north-eastern Borno state in Nigeria. The abductions have sparked protests around the world calling for the release of the girls who are being held by the militant group Boko Haram. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Soldiers walk to block the advancing civil society groups protesting the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally pressing for the girls' release in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. Members of civil society groups marched through the streets of Abuja and to the Nigerian defence headquarters to meet with military chiefs, to press for the release of more than 200 Chibok school girls abducted three weeks ago. Suspected Boko Haram Islamists have kidnapped eight more girls from Nigeria's embattled northeast, residents said on May 6, after the extremist group's leader claimed responsibility for abducting more than 200 schoolgirls last month and said in a video he was holding them as 'slaves' and threatened to 'sell them in the market'. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of civil society groups shout slogans to protest the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally pressing for the girls' release in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. Members of civil society groups marched through the streets of Abuja and to the Nigerian defence headquarters to meet with military chiefs, to press for the release of more than 200 Chibok school girls abducted three weeks ago. Suspected Boko Haram Islamists have kidnapped eight more girls from Nigeria's embattled northeast, residents said on May 6, after the extremist group's leader claimed responsibility for abducting more than 200 schoolgirls last month and said in a video he was holding them as 'slaves' and threatened to 'sell them in the market'. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Leader of Chibok community in Abuja Hosea Sambido (R) raises a newspaper reporting the death of two of the abducted Chibok school girls during a rally pressing for the girls' release in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. Members of civil society groups marched through the streets of Abuja and to the Nigerian defence headquarters to meet with military chiefs, to press for the release of more than 200 Chibok school girls abducted three weeks ago. Suspected Boko Haram Islamists have kidnapped eight more girls from Nigeria's embattled northeast, residents said on May 6, after the extremist group's leader claimed responsibility for abducting more than 200 schoolgirls last month and said in a video he was holding them as 'slaves' and threatened to 'sell them in the market'. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the mothers of the missing Chibok school girls wipes her tears as she cries during a rally by civil society groups pressing for the release of the girls in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. Members of civil society groups marched through the streets of Abuja and to the Nigerian defence headquarters to meet with military chiefs, to press for the release of more than 200 Chibok school girls abducted three weeks ago. Suspected Boko Haram Islamists have kidnapped eight more girls from Nigeria's embattled northeast, residents said on May 6, after the extremist group's leader claimed responsibility for abducting more than 200 schoolgirls last month and said in a video he was holding them as 'slaves' and threatened to 'sell them in the market'. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman carries placard to press for the release of missing Chibok school girls during a rally by civil society in Lagos on May 5, 2014. Boko Haram on Monday claimed the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria that has triggered international outrage, threatening to sell them as 'slaves'. 'I abducted your girls,' the Islamist group's leader Abubakar Shekau said in the 57-minute video obtained by AFP, referring to the 276 students kidnapped from their boarding school in Chibok, Borno state, three weeks ago. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman stand beside children holding as members of Lagos based civil society groups hold rally calling for the release of missing Chibok school girls at the state government house, in Lagos, Nigeria, on May 5, 2014. Boko Haram on Monday claimed the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria that has triggered international outrage, threatening to sell them as 'slaves'. 'I abducted your girls,' the Islamist group's leader Abubakar Shekau said in the 57-minute video obtained by AFP, referring to the 276 students kidnapped from their boarding school in Chibok, Borno state, three weeks ago. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Women sit as they gather on May 8, 2014 during a meeting called by Congafen (the Coordination of the NGOs and Nigerien women associations) at the Youth house in Niamey, western Niger, to ask the United Nations (UN) to pursue in justice Boko Haram Islamists who are responsible for the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls. Nigeria's president said today that Boko Haram's mass abduction of the schoolgirls in Nigeria would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, as world powers joined the search to rescue the hostages. A few days before Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility in a video, saying his extreme Islamist group was holding the schoolgirls as 'slaves' and threatening to 'sell them in the market'. AFP PHOTO / BOUREIMA HAMA (Photo credit should read BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 3, 2014 in Maine-Soroa, eastern Niger, shows Nigerian children standing near a tent at a camp for refugees who fled the fighting between the Nigerian army and the Islamist rebels of Boko Haram. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Joe Brock

(Reuters) - Nigeria's hunt for more than 200 abducted schoolgirls is not all that it seems. In public, an international operation is gathering pace while behind the scenes, officials say it is unlikely to deliver the success that global opinion demands.

The United States and Britain are helping Nigerian forces in the effort to liberate the girls taken from their school in Borno state a month ago by Boko Haram Islamist militants.

The pressure for results is huge, with the likes of Michelle Obama and film star Angelina Jolie supporting a social media campaign operating under the Twitter tag #BringBackOurGirls.

Washington has sent surveillance aircraft as well as assigning medical, intelligence, counter-terrorism and communications advisers to the mission.

Nigeria's Missing Girls: Who's Searching and How

But officials have little idea where the girls are, and acknowledge that if they are found, any rescue attempt would be fraught with problems. On top of that, morale is shaky among some of the Nigerian troops involved in the hunt who already have experience of Boko Haram as a formidable foe.

"We commend the effort by the #BringBackOurGirls protesters but it doesn't fit with the reality of the security situation we are facing," said a senior Nigerian military source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign experts are also pessimistic that the girls can be extricated from the rebels' clutches and returned to their homes in Nigeria's remote northeast where Boko Haram operates.

"I think a rescue is currently unlikely and unfeasible," said Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at U.S. counter-terrorism institution CTC Sentinel.

Until Monday, nothing had been seen of the girls since they were snatched from the village of Chibok near Nigeria's borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Then Boko Haram released a video showing more than 100 girls together in a rural location. In it, rebel leader Abubakar Shekau offered to exchange them for captured militants.

The video raised hopes that their location could be found using ground forces, state-of-the-art intelligence and surveillance planes.

Then an operation could be staged, perhaps with forces swooping from the sky like a British raid in Sierra Leone in 2000 to free soldiers held by militiamen, or Israeli commandoes' rescue of passengers from a jet hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

However, such a scenario is unlikely this time. One source with knowledge of the search said the footage was probably taken at least 10 days ago, if Boko Harma's past videos are any guide. By now, the girls could be somewhere else as a group, or dispersed to many places.

VIRTUALLY UNDETECTABLE

The Sambisa forest, Boko Haram's stronghold, is a first target but it is not conducive to aerial search because it covers 60,000 square km (23,000 square miles), more than twice the size of Rwanda. The rebels know this area intimately and could spread the girls among local families, making them virtually undetectable by conventional security forces.

Two U.S. national security sources said initially the girls were separated into around three large groups but were subsequently scattered in smaller groups. Other experts said they could be in mountains near Gwoza on the Cameroon border.

If this is the case, some girls might be found before others, posing a dilemma for would-be rescuers.

"In the past, Boko have threatened, and maybe actually gone ahead with, killing hostages upon sensing the merest hint of possible rescue operations," said a security source. Rescuing some girls could add to danger faced by others still captive.

Another problem is time. Britain's minister responsible for African affairs, Mark Simmonds, said on Wednesday that it was "early days" in the rescue operation, yet the abduction happened on April 14 so rebels have had ample time to prepare for an international response.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official criticized Nigeria on Thursday for being too slow to adapt to the threat of Boko Haram.

TIRED OF FIGHTING

An incident this week highlighted the problems of the Nigerian army, whose 1st and 7th divisions have been deployed to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, to confront the rebels.

On Tuesday, gunmen ambushed a unit returning to Maiduguri from Chibok, killing at least four soldiers. Rebels were also killed. The next day soldiers fired into the air at Maiduguri barracks to protest about what they said was poor leadership.

Defense headquarters quickly stated that the situation had been resolved, but soldiers told Reuters they remained angry.

"These Boko Haram have special forces. They know how to shoot and maintain their grounds more than us. What is making it worse is our superior officers who are insensitive to the plight of the troops," said a soldier, who declined to be identified.

"We are tired of this whole thing because we are being killed every day and we don't get the required support and care from our superiors," another soldier said.

President Goodluck Jonathan will visit Chibok on Friday, senior government officials said.

Even coordinating an international effort faces difficulties in Nigeria, which recently overtook South Africa as the continent's biggest economy. Nigeria has close ties with Western powers but has historically resisted foreign military involvement on its soil.

One possible sign of differing approaches is that Simmonds, rather than the president himself, announced that Jonathan had ruled out any prisoner exchange for the girls' release. Nigerian officials have since declined to comment.

Ultimately, the girls' best hope may lie in dialogue but the road to talks remains uncertain because the rebels do not form a unified group.

Boko Haram is faceless and even Shekau heads just one of several loosely coordinated groups with differing objectives, said a senior official with knowledge of the northeast.

A Nigerian presidential committee set up last year for talks with the rebels dealt last year with Boko Haram proxies. But they were later denounced by other Boko Haram militants as impostors, according to Minister of Special Duties Tanimu Turaki, who leads the committee.

One security source in Abuja cautioned against raising false hopes. "It is time we removed the thought of a very happy ending to this situation," the source said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja, Isaac Abrak in Maiduguri and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by David Stamp)

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