Exclusive: Boko Haram abandons demands for its top commanders to be released in negotiations with the Nigerian government that could see "gradual" release of schoolgirls as early as next week, sources tell Telegraph
Nigerian members of the Ladies of Lumumba Metropilitan Council of Catholic Church group protest in Lagos over the government's failure to rescue the abducted Chibok school girls
Boko Haram has dropped demands for the release of top commanders in talks with the Nigerian government and is prepared to start releasing up to half its kidnapped schoolgirls in coming days, sources close to the group have said.
The militant Islamist group, which kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls a month ago, is willing to conduct a "gradual" release of its hostages in return for the release of Boko Haram prisoners in Nigerian jails, it was claimed.
In a significant concession, the group has abandoned demands for its top commanders to be released, seemingly aware that this would be politically impossible for the Nigerian government.
The Telegraph first reported details of Boko Haram's offer of an imminent prisoner exchange last Tuesday, when sources close to to some of the militants' families said that a senior Islamic cleric from northern Nigeria would be appointed to mediate on its behalf with the government.
The cleric has since been joined by a former aide to one of the group's founders. Neither man has been named, possibly for their own safety. While the Nigerian government has insisted that it is not willing to enter prisoner swap negotiations, the source claimed that dialogue had already been going in secret for several days.
"Contrary to the public rejection of any swap deal by the Nigerian government, there are some on-the-ground talks taking place," the source said. "An agreement was reached about two or three days ago in principle to start releasing some prisoners."
He said that among the prisoners that the group wanted released would be wives and families of Boko Haram fighters, some of whom have been taken into custody by the Nigerian government in order to exert emotional pressure on the fighters themselves. "The group also has a list of lower-level fighters that it wants released as well, but they are not high-profile ones," the source added.
He said that in exchange, Boko Haram was willing to start a "gradual" release of around 100 of the girls – possibly beginning as early as the coming the week. "Depending on how the other side responds, the girls will be released in small groups. They will be left at a certain safe location, and the authorities will then be told as to where they can pick them up from."
Details of the offer emerged as officials investigated reports that Boko Haram was responsible for the kidnapping of up to 10 Chinese workers in neighbouring Cameroon, where the group now also has a presence.
Goodluck Jonathan, left, and Francois Hollande speak to the press following the summit on Boko Haram
On Saturday, Nigeria and its neighbours, including Cameroon, Benin, Chad, and Niger, declared "war" on Boko Haram after an international summit in Paris hosted by the French president, François Hollande.
The offensive will involve co-ordination of surveillance efforts aimed at finding the girls, the sharing of intelligence, the tightening of border controls, and a regional counter-terrorism strategy with Western help.
The Telegraph source said Boko Haram leaders had been upset by the declaration of "war" at the Paris summit, and that this could encourage it to withdraw its offer.
At the summit, the countries agreed to forge a regional counter-terrorism strategy with expertise and training support from Britain, France, the European Union and the United States.
The countries also agreed to push for UN sanctions against the leaders of Boko Haram and another Nigerian Islamist group, Ansaru. America has already designated the leaders of both group as terrorists.
Britain will host a follow-up meeting to discuss the Boko Haram crisis next month. It is thought that the kidnapped schoolgirls are being held somewhere in either north-east Nigeria or across the border in Cameroon.
Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, demanded the release of his "brethren" in a video last week in which the kidnapped schoolgirls were paraded.
The Chinese embassy in Cameroon confirmed that ten of its workers had gone missing on Friday at a site near the town on Waza, 12 miles from the Nigerian border and close to the Sambisa forest, a Boko Haram stronghold.
Lu Qingjiang, the embassy's political counsellor, said that one Chinese worker was also injured in the attack, China's Xinhua state news agency reported.
Ten vehicles belonging to China's state-run construction company Sinohydro, which is repairing roads in Cameroon, were also taken, Xinhua said.
Mr Lu called on the Cameroonian authorities to "not put the lives of Chinese nationals missing in danger in case actions of liberation be launched", Xinhua said.
Friday's incident began when power was cut in the evening. A five-hour gunfight followed, a guard at the Waza National Park told Reuters.
"Some of us decided to hide in the forest with the animals," said the guard.
Cameroon state radio said that a Cameroon special forces soldier was killed. Four others, including two soldiers were seriously wounded. As well as at least 10 vehicles, the rebels took a container of explosives belonging to the Chinese company, it said.
Boko Haram has staged several attacks in northern Cameroon during its five-year fight to set up an Islamist state. Last month, it attacked a police post killing two people. The rebels kidnapped a French family in February 2013.