An Australian man has revealed how he is desperately trying to free the 250 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, who were taken on April 14 by Boko Haram terrorists.
Dr Stephen Davis, the Australian man, left his home in Perth to travel to the African country after being recruited by the country’s president for his hostage negotiation expertise.
The girls were taken in a raid on their school in Chibok, in Nigeria’s north-east, by the violent group who want to impose Sharia law on the country.
Dr Davis, a friend of The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has been working secretly in Nigeria for almost a month now.
The former Canon Emeritus at Coventry Cathedral in the UK, who moved back to Australia last year, told MailOnline: ‘I am encouraged by the progress.’
He was asked to come to Nigeria after previously brokering a truce between violent rebels and the government in the Niger Delta in 2004.
Along with Mr Welby, he was frequently blindfolded and held at gunpoint during his peace work.
In an email from Nigeria, the Doctor revealed he has had ‘ongoing contact’ with the groups involved in the kidnapping in Nigeria’s north for seven years.
‘This is a long process of building trust on both sides,’ he said.
‘There are several groups to deal with as the girls are held in several camps. This makes any thought of a rescue highly improbable. To attempt to rescue one group would only endanger the others.’
Despite the difficulties of a rescue operation, Dr Davis remains hopeful that the schoolgirls will be freed.
‘Every day there is the possibility of the release of the girls,’ he revealed.
‘This is painful for the parents and the nation. The well-being of the girls is constantly on our minds and we want to see their release as soon as possible.’
However, he warned: ‘We must not endanger their lives any further.’
Speaking about his recent negotiation work, he explained he has been to forward military position in the northeast of Nigeria in recent days.
He believes ‘the troops and their field commanders are doing all that can be done at this point’.
On Sunday, a heartbreaking new video of the Nigerian schoolgirls showed them bravely speaking out about their ordeal for the first time.
The footage, not released publicly but seen by The Mail on Sunday, was taken in a jungle clearing a month after their abduction.
The girls in the video look healthy, but it is understood that fraught negotiations are under way to broker the release several pupils who have fallen ill, including one with a broken wrist
In the video, eight girls, dressed in their home-made school uniforms of pale blue gingham, plead for release as they stand courageously in front of the camera.
They are clearly scared, upset and trying to be brave. Each of them walks in turn to a spot in front of a white sheet fixed to a crude frame between the trees.
Four of them can be heard clearly, in their Hausa language, stating that they were taken by force and that they are hungry.
A tall girl, aged about 18, says tearfully: ‘My family will be so worried.’
Another, speaking softly, says: ‘I never expected to suffer like this in my life.’ A third says: ‘They have taken us away by force.’ The fourth girl complains: ‘We are not getting enough food.’
The video, taken by an intermediary on May 19, has been shown to President Goodluck Jonathan. It was intended to serve as ‘proof of life’ for the girls and to encourage the President to accede to the terrorists’ demands.
Two earlier videos showed the girls seated on the ground, dressed in hijabs, reciting the Koran, and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declaring he would sell them into slavery, or marry them off to their kidnappers, if members of his sect were not released from prison.
Pressure from the international community and criticism of the President’s slow response to the kidnapping have led to a series of contradictory pronouncements from his government
Ministers have declared they will not negotiate with Boko Haram, or consider the release of prisoners, while official spokesmen have said ‘the window is always open for dialogue’.
At a Paris peace summit, several West African countries neighbouring Nigeria vowed to join in ‘outright war’ against the terrorists. Britain, France and America pledged their support and have sent teams of military experts and advisers to the region.
Intelligence sources have told the MoS of several rescue attempts, one involving the release of suspected low-level Boko Haram members detained without charges or trial.
Two attempts were aborted at the last minute when the terrorists took fright while delivering a group of girls to a safe location.
Last week Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Air Marshal Alex Badeh said the government knew the location of the girls and claimed that police and military had been ‘following them’ since the abduction. He refused to divulge details, saying it would put the girls in further danger.
Sources said Marshal Badeh’s announcement may have been the result of government officials seeing the new, unpublished video. They may have been able to persuade Boko Haram’s intermediary to provide details of the location. It is believed the hostages have been split into at least four groups
‘The vast majority of the Chibok girls are not being held in Nigeria,’ Dr Davis said.
‘They are in camps across the Nigerian border in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. I say the “vast majority” as I know a small group was confirmed to me to be in Nigeria last week when we sought to have them released.’
He described how fraught the negotiation process has been.
‘One of that small group of girls is ill and we had hoped we might convince the commander of the group holding her that she should be released so we could give her medical treatment,’ Dr Davis said.
‘There are other girls who are not well and we have come close to having them released but their captors fear a trap in which they will be captured in the handover process.‘
‘One girl has what I assume is a broken wrist as they demonstrate to me how she holds her hand. I have been told that others are sick and in need of medical attention.’