National News

Canada offers to help Nigeria find teen girls

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - In the messy world of competing international interests, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird decided Wednesday that the fate of hundreds of abducted teenage girls in Nigeria would come before all else.

In so doing, Baird placed another tenet of his foreign policy firmly on the back burner: his outspoken condemnation of an outbreak of homophobic laws in several African countries, including Nigeria.

Baird pledged Canada's unwavering support to help free the female students abducted by Islamic extremists, a tragedy that has now gripped the world.

Canada will supply surveillance equipment to help Nigeria find the girls, even though it has long-standing concerns about the country's human rights record, the Harper government said Wednesday.

Baird made clear that any loans of Canadian military hardware to Nigeria would be accompanied by Canadian military personnel to operate it.

"We obviously would have concerns, with Nigeria, with their human rights record and many issues," he said.

Without mentioning it specifically, Baird appeared to be referencing Nigeria's relatively new law that further criminalizes homosexuality. The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act criminalizes homosexual clubs and organizations, and carries a maximum 14-year prison term.

It is not as strict as Uganda's anti-gay law, which Baird has also slammed, sparking heated public exchanges with the government in Kampala.

But on a January visit to Nigeria, Baird said Canada was deeply concerned with the law and he called on the government to repeal it. Baird called for the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Nigerians regardless of sexual orientation.

On Wednesday, Baird made clear there was no way Canada would agree to Nigeria's original request to turn over "millions" of dollars in military hardware without strings attached.

That said, Canada wants to do everything it can to help rescue the hundreds of girls aged 12 to 15 who were kidnapped by Islamic militants from a school in Nigeria three weeks ago, Baird said.

"This has been a foreign policy priority for Canada. The rights of women, the rights of girls, the campaign against early marriage ... gender violence and terrorism is obviously something which is a huge concern for us," Baird explained.

"I think that is what has captivated the attention of Canadians and frankly people around the world that are just horrified at this repugnant act."

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, confirmed in an email that Canada "would provide surveillance equipment and the technical expertise to operate it."

MacDonald was responding to an earlier report out of Nigeria that said that country had asked Canada to provide surveillance equipment in the wake of the April kidnappings by the Boko Haram rebel group.

The behind-the-scenes negotiations were revealed when Nigerian Vice-President Namadi Sambo issued a statement Wednesday after meeting a day earlier with Canadian Development Minister Christian Paradis. That statement reportedly asked Canada to supply "surveillance equipment and other vital security hardware" to help Nigeria battle the Boko Haram insurgency.

Harper did not confirm the report when asked about it in the Commons by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair during Wednesday's question period, but he said discussions between the two governments had taken place in Nigeria.

"We are very concerned by the growth of what is a very extreme terrorist organization," said Harper.

"We're willing to provide a range of assistance, and that offer remains open."

In a follow-up email, MacDonald said: "We will work with Nigerian authorities to provide assistance in the effort to help find the missing girls."

In response to a question from the NDP, Baird said if Canada had surveillance equipment that was not in the region and could be of use, Canada would be pleased to provide it.

On Tuesday, Paradis told The Canadian Press in an email that Canada was ready to assist Nigeria, but he offered no specifics.

"Canada strongly condemns the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram," he said. "These cowardly acts are morally appalling. We will continue to support Nigeria in their fight against terrorism."

Baird said later that Paradis personally offered Canada's full support to the Nigerians.

The statement from Sambo's office also said: "Paradis further noted that the same-sex law should not be used to affect people's fundamental human rights."

The United States, Britain and France are also sending experts to Nigeria to help with the search for the girls.

Also Wednesday, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar called for an emergency debate in Parliament over Canada's response to the abduction.

"These girls were taken while writing a high school physics exam, an indication of the extent to which Boko Haram terrorists seek to undermine the education of young Nigerians, particularly girls," Dewar wrote in a letter to House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer.

"Hundreds of young innocent lives are at stake, along with the political and social direction of a country and the region. Parliamentarians need an opportunity to discuss an appropriate Canadian response to this crisis."

Nigeria has been fighting Boko Haram's Islamic uprising for five years, during which time it has claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims and Christians. So far this year, an estimated 1,500 people have been killed.

Boko Haram wants to impose an Islamic state in Nigeria even though half of the country's 170 million citizens are Christian.

Hundreds more were killed in an a Boko Haram attack Wednesday on a border town in northeast Nigeria, close to where the abductions took place.

In all, Boko Haram — the name translates in English as "western education is sinful" — is holding 276 teenage students. Muslim leaders from across the globe have condemned the kidnapping.

The group's leader has threatened to sell the girls while pledging to attack more schools and commit further abductions.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will do everything it can to help Nigeria find the girls.

Obama also said the crisis might finally mobilize action against Boko Haram, "this horrendous organization that's perpetrated such a terrible crime."

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