A twin-engine U.S. spy plane used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan has been conducting surveillance over northeastern Nigeria in the search for the schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terror group, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The Air Force MC-12W Liberty, the military version of the Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350, and its crew of four has flown several Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions this week in the effort to locate the girls aged 16-18 who were abducted from their school in the town of Chibok on April 14, the officials said.
In addition, a Northrup Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, the huge drone that the Air Force sees as the replacement for the U-2 spy plane, has flown at least one mission over Nigeria, NBC News reported.
The MC-12W normally carries two pilots and two sensor operators, and is equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as signals collection gear, according to the Air Combat Command.
U.S. officials have cautioned against expecting quick results from the surveillance flights. The initial search area includes the Sambisi forest and is about the size of New England, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
"We've provided commercial satellite imagery and are flying manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft over Nigeria with the government's permission," Psaki said.
The search was also complicated by a U.S. law barring the Defense and State Departments from sharing intelligence with foreign militaries accused of human rights abuses.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez, head of the Africa Command, was in Nigeria on Monday and Tuesday to confer with government and military authorities on intelligence sharing while complying with the so-called "Leahy" amendment, named for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on human rights violations.
Nigeria's military has been accused of heavy-handed tactics in the campaign against Boko Haram in mostly Muslim northern Nigeria.
Several members of Congress have pressed the Obama administration to use Special Forces to find and rescue the girls but Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that the U.S. has "no intention to put Americans on the ground in Nigeria for the purpose of a rescue effort."
A Nigerian official on Wednesday said the government was open to negotiating with Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shegau on releasing the girls in return for prisoners held by the Nigerian government.
Such a move could also be problematic for the U.S., which late last year declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization.
The U.S. has a general policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Psaki declined to comment on the U.S. position if the Nigerians open discussions with Boko Haram.
Nigerian officials had earlier ruled out talks with Boko Haram but appeared to be changing their stance following the release of a video showing the captured girls seated on the ground.
"We are willing to carry that dialogue on any issue, including the girls kidnapped in Chibok, because certainly we are not going to say that (the kidnappings) is not an issue," Nigerian Special Duties Minister Taminu Turaki told Agence France Presse.
In a separate video, Shekau said a prisoner swap was the only way to release the girls.
"I swear to almighty Allah, you will not see them again until you release our brothers that you have captured," Shekau said in the video.
The State Department's Rewards for Justice program has offered a $7 million reward for information leading to the location or capture of Shegau.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com