ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — President Goodluck Jonathan met for the first time Tuesday with many parents of 219 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls and dozens of classmates who managed to escape from their Islamic extremist captors.
Tuesday's meeting comes after some had refused to meet Nigeria's leader last week. For months the parents have been asking to see the president and he finally acceded to a request from Pakistani girls-education activist Malala Yousafzai, who had met with the parents.
Jonathan blamed activists of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign for politicizing the abductions and influencing the parents. The parents said they needed time to decide who would attend.
Chibok community spokesman Lawan Abana said there were 177 people in the delegation meeting Jonathan and an AP reporter counted 51 of the 57 girls who escaped in the early days after the April 15 abduction.
At least 11 of the parents have died since then — seven in a village attack this month and four of heart attacks and other illnesses that the Chibok community blames on the trauma.
Jonathan was accompanied by the ministers of education and of finance, and his national security adviser.
Jonathan and his team walked to a stage above the waiting parents and girls, and journalists were asked to leave. Also present was Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno state, from which the girls were abducted. Shettima has accused Jonathan of not doing enough to save the girls and has angered the government with his charges that Boko Haram fighters are better armed and motivated than Nigeria's military.
The failure to rescue the girls is an international embarrassment and daily #BringBackOurGirls rallies in Abuja, the capital, to ensure attention for the girls' plight have irked the government.
Some of the parents and community leaders of the Chibok town from which the girls were kidnapped have made public statements urging Jonathan to negotiate with the girls' captors. Boko Haram is demanding a swap for detained fighters in exchange for the girls. So far, Jonathan has refused.
Nigeria's Defense Ministry, also criticized for not quickly rescuing the girls, has said that it knows where they are being held but that it fears any military campaign could get them killed.
Boko Haram has increased the number and deadliness of its attacks and this month has been closing in on Chibok, threatening to attack again, according to community leaders.
Last week Boko Haram fighters took control of Damboa town, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Chibok, and the National Emergency Management Agency said Monday more than 15,000 people from the town and nearby villages are on the run.
The mass abduction has been plagued by politics from the start. First lady Patience Jonathan charged the kidnappings were fabricated by her husband's enemies to damage his image.
She also had two leading activists briefly arrested, and relations between the government, security services and the #BringBackOurGirls movement have been tense ever since.
On Monday, leading campaigner Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister, posted on Twitter that her passport was briefly seized by state intelligence agents as she tried to board a flight to London from Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
Jonathan has never before met with the parents or the escaped girls, though he insists repeatedly that "My priority is the return of these girls." In May, he cancelled a planned trip to Chibok without explanation.
Jonathan said last week that, "As a father of girls, I stand ready to meet with the parents of our abducted children and the truly brave girls that have escaped this nightmare through the grace of God."
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.