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Canada to aid Nigeria in search for abducted schoolgirls

A woman holds a sign during a protest in Lagos on May 5, 2014, demanding the release of abducted secondary school girls from the remote village of Chibok. The abductions were carried out by the Islamist rebel group Boko Haram.

AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE/REUTERS

After years of rejecting Western support for its massive battle against Boko Haram militants, the beleaguered Nigerian government is finally agreeing to foreign help, including surveillance equipment and personnel from Canada, as it struggles with a growing wave of brutal attacks and mass kidnappings.

In their latest attack, the Islamist radicals have killed as many as 300 people in a remote town in Nigeria's northeast, while they continue to hold captive as many as 276 schoolgirls who were kidnapped last month in an atrocity that has shocked the world.

The attack by Boko Haram on Monday, in the town of Gamburu Ngala on Nigeria's border with Cameroon, left the streets littered with bodies, according to reports on Wednesday. The extremists reportedly attacked the town in armoured trucks and motorcycles, killing entire families, razing houses and burning traders alive in their stalls.

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The United States, Britain and France have pledged to send specialist teams of intelligence and communications experts to help Nigeria search for the missing schoolgirls. And in the latest development, Canada says it will join the hunt for the kidnapped girls by sending its own surveillance equipment, along with technical experts to operate it.

Nigerian Vice-President Namadi Sambo, in a meeting with visiting Canadian Development Minister Christian Paradis in the Nigerian capital of Abuja this week, "pleaded for support and assistance from Canada in areas of surveillance equipment and other vital security hardware," Mr. Sambo's office said on Wednesday.

The federal government immediately said it was willing to send the surveillance equipment, along with the personnel to operate it.

"If Canada has surveillance equipment, and it is not in the region that could provide assistance to help find these young girls, we would be pleased to provide it and the technical expertise to operate that equipment," Foreign Minister John Baird told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Mr. Baird cautioned that any potential Canadian help could be unnecessary if the United States already has the same surveillance equipment available in a nearby country. "So I wouldn't say that it's likely, but if it's required, it's necessary, we will move heaven and earth to get the support to find these young girls as soon as possible," he told journalists on Wednesday.

A separate statement by Mr. Paradis, which was echoed by the Prime Minister's Office, was more definitive. "Canada will work with Nigerian authorities to provide assistance in the effort to help find the missing girls," Mr. Paradis said. "Canada will provide surveillance equipment and the technical expertise to operate it."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that his government is "very concerned by the growth of what is a very extreme terrorist organization." And the opposition New Democratic Party called for an emergency debate in Parliament to consider Canada's response to the mass kidnapping of the teenage girls. "Hundreds of young innocent lives are at stake, along with the political and social direction of a country and the region," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.

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In the past, Nigeria has been reluctant to accept any Western help for its battle against Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people in northern Nigeria since 2009.

"This is a proud country with a professional military," said Johnnie Carson, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "They believe they had had a handle on the problem and have been making progress. And as a large nation, they believe they're capable of handling these problems themselves."

Even "analytical advice" has been rejected by the Nigerian government in the past, Mr. Carson told a media briefing. But instead of controlling the Boko Haram rebellion as it claimed to have done, the problem has grown worse, he noted.

One major problem for the Western governments is the brutal excesses of the Nigerian military itself. Nigerian soldiers and police have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in their anti-insurgency campaign, according to human-rights reports.

This makes it legally difficult for the United States to provide military help to the Nigerian army, Mr. Carson said.

Mr. Baird said Canada has its own concerns with the human-rights record of the Nigerian government, so it would not send any equipment as a "permanent gift." It would be restricted to the search for the missing girls, he said. "Obviously we wouldn't want to give Canadian military equipment to the government."

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About the Authors
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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