U.S. experts have arrived in Nigeria to help find the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped last month by Islamist group Boko Haram.
The team, comprised of military and law enforcement officials, belongs to a “coordination cell” that will provide intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiations expertise, the U.S. Department of State said.
“Our inter-agency team is hitting the ground in Nigeria,” Secretary of State John Kerry said late Thursday, adding that it will be working with the Nigerian government to find the girls and return them to their families and their communities.
“We are also going to do everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram,” Kerry said, describing the extremist Islamist group responsible for kidnapping the girls.
So far, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has met with the U.S. ambassador to discuss "the modalities for the actualization" of the U.S. offer of help, according to a statement made by the president’s spokesman, Reuben Abati.
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Jonathan and U.S. authorities said Thursday that the hundreds of schoolgirls have likely been separated and taken out of the country.
"We do think they have been broken up into smaller groups," U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said.
Kirby declined to give a reason for this conclusion, but it is a determination agreed upon by Nigerian officials and other Western officials.
"The search must be in Niger, Cameroon and Chad, to see if we can find information," former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the U.N.'s special envoy for global education, told CNN. "It's vital to use the information to find the girls before they are dispersed across Africa, which is a very real possibility."
The schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram militants on April 14 from the Government Girls Secondary School in rural Chibok, about 600 miles from the capital of Abuja.
On Sunday night, another kidnapping took place where villagers in Warabe said Boko Haram militants took at least eight girls between the ages of 12 and 15.
In a video that surfaced this week, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, took credit for the mass kidnappings.
"I abducted your girls," he said in the video. "There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell."
The reason behind the mass kidnappings may be to force concessions from the Nigerian government such as the release of Boko Haram followers from prisons, Shehu Sani, a former negotiator between Boko Haram and the government, told CNN.
Violence has ensued in several regions where the search is underway to find the girls. On Thursday, Nigerian police said one officer was shot in the neck during a gunfight with suspected members of the group. On Monday, a Boko Haram attack near the border town of Gamboru Ngala left some 310 people burned alive.
The government of Borno state, where Chibok is located, identified 53 girls that escaped in the mass kidnapping, a move that may subject them to stigma in a conservative society, the Associated Press reports. The names, which identify girls that fled the day they were kidnapped or who escaped from Boko Haram camps days later, were released in a statement Friday.
For years, Boko Haram, which roughly translates to “Western education is sinful,” has been destroying churches, performing mass kidnappings and burning down schools, sometimes with students locked inside. This year, the group is responsible for more than 1,500 deaths.