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World leaders pledge to combat Nigerian Islamist militants Boko Haram

The leaders agree to improve policing of frontiers, share intelligence, and trace the weapons and cash that are the group's lifeblood.

The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, third from left, and the leaders of Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger agreed with western officials to share intelligence and coordinate the fight against Boko Haram. Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images / May 17, 2014
The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, third from left, and the leaders of Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger agreed with western officials to share intelligence and coordinate the fight against Boko Haram. Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images / May 17, 2014

PARIS // World powers approved an action plan to combat Boko Haram yesterday in what Chad’s president described as “a total war” against the militants.

The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and the leaders of Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger agreed with western officials to share intelligence and coordinate the fight against the Nigerian Islamist group.

Boko Haram are blamed for 2,000 deaths this year and gained international attention with their abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls last month.

The agreement came after Boko Haram attacked a Chinese company’s work camp across Nigeria’s border in Cameroon. One Chinese worker was killed and 10 are missing. The camp is in the same nearly trackless parkland where the schoolgirls were spirited away.

“There is determination to tackle this situation head on … to launch a war, a total war on Boko Haram,” said Chad’s president Idriss Deby.

“Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an Al Qaeda operation, it is an Al Qaeda of West Africa,” said Mr Jonathan.

The French president Francois Hollande also emphasised Boko Haram’s links with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, and said the group was fundamentally opposed to civilisation.

Boko Haram offered to exchange the 223 girls who remain captive for jailed insurgents, and also threatened to sell them into slavery.

“Boko Haram’s strategy, contrary to all civilisation, is to destabilise Nigeria and to destroy the fundamental principles of human dignity,” Mr Hollande said. “More than 200 young girls threatened with slavery is the proof.” The group has ample funds, sophisticated weaponry and advanced training with some of the world’s most experienced terrorists, he said.

“This group is armed, with heavy weapons of an unimaginable sophistication and the ability to use them,” the French president said.

Officials have said there will be no western military operation.

On Friday, Mr Jonathan cancelled a trip to the town where the girls were seized, apparently because of security concerns. He defended his actions yesterday.

“What is of interest now is to locate the girls. The girls are not in Chibok,” said the Nigerian leader, whose last-minute cancellation of the visit was widely criticised.

“I will visit Chibok,” he said, but did not give a date.

British officials say Mr Jonathan, who has reluctantly accepted outside help, has ruled out swapping prisoners for the girls.

Nigeria is likely to refer the group to the United Nations Security Council for sanctions, a western diplomatic source said.

“Nigeria has agreed in principle to a draft resolution at the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Boko Haram.”

Britain offered to send advisers to help the Nigerian military organise its efforts to fight Boko Haram.

“Nigerian security forces have not been well structured for this kind of thing and that has been shown by the problem getting worse,” William Hague, the UK foreign minister, said.

Signs are growing that some Nigerian troops are near mutiny, complaining they are overwhelmed and outgunned by Boko Haram. Soldiers have said that some in the ranks actually fight alongside the group. Last year, Mr Jonathan said he suspected that Boko Haram members and sympathisers had infiltrated every level of his government and military, including the cabinet.

That complicates attempts to share intelligence. The US, France and Britain have all sent experts to help find the girls, but French and American officials have expressed concerns about how any information might be used.

The north-eastern region where the girls were kidnapped has suffered five years of increasingly deadly assaults by Boko Haram. Thousands have been killed, including more than 1,500 civilians this year.

Cameroon has begun to take the threat more seriously after years of dismissing it as a Nigerian problem.

France has negotiated the release of citizens held by Boko Haram in Cameroon and officials were hoping yesterday’s summit would set the outlines of a more international approach.

Chinese state media reported that 10 people were missing in the Friday night attack on the camp in a region where Boko Haram has previously abducted foreigners, including a French family of seven and a priest.

Mr Hollande’s administration successfully negotiated the release of the French citizens, and officials in Paris said France’s experience dealing with Boko Haram as well as its good relations with the governments concerned were the impetus for the summit.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse