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Claims by a Nigerian official that a cease-fire with the Boko Haram terrorist group has been reached were met with widespread skepticism Friday in Washington -- and even in Nigeria -- with experts in both countries saying it was likely either a case of wishful thinking or a political ploy by supporters of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Nigeria's Defense Chief of Staff Alex Badeh announced earlier Friday that a truce had been reached and claimed that 200-plus girls seized from a government school six months ago would soon be freed.
But that was quickly followed by a statement from the government's own propaganda arm stating that while the two sides have engaged in talks, they have not reached an agreement to halt hostilities.
"We can confirm that there have been contacts between the government and representatives of Boko Haram," the National Information Center statement stated. "The discussions are essentially in relation to the general insecurity in the Northeast and also the need to rescue all captives of the terrorists, including the students of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok. … From the discussions, they indicated their desire for and willingness to discuss and resolve all associated issues. They also assured that the schoolgirls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well."
Experts in both the U.S. and Nigeria noted that there was no official confirmation of a cease-fire from Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group which now controls an area approximately the size of Maryland and continue to threaten Maiduguri, a city of 1 million in the country's northeast.
Boko Haram experts in Nigeria also questioned the credibility of the man whom Badeh said had acted as the group's envoy in the cease-fire negotiations, which purportedly took place in neighboring Chad.
"I have never heard of such a man and if Boko Haram wanted to declare a cease-fire it would come from the group's leader Abubakar Shekau," said Shehu Sani, a Boko Haram expert who has negotiated with the group before on behalf of the government.
U.S. officials note that Shekau has previously stated that his group has not negotiated with the Nigerian government. When the Nigerian government has claimed to have made progress in talks, the usual response has been a Boko Haram attack, they said.
One official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, also noted that there has been no recent indication from Boko Haram that it would be willing to discuss releasing the abducted schoolgirls in exchange for the government freeing members of the group it has imprisoned, as it did immediately after the girls’ kidnapping on April 14.
Moreover, President Jonathan is expected to declare his re-election bid in the coming days -- perhaps as early as Saturday -- and positive news about the hostages could give him a political boost, the official said.