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Nigerian Schoolgirl Search Draws Top U.S. Commander

Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is guided by U.S. Army Lt. General David Rodriguez after landing at Kabul International Airport
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) is guided by U.S. Army Lt. General David Rodriguez (R) after landing at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan December 8, 2009. Reuters

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The commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Africa is on the ground in Nigeria working to find and rescue hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls, NBC News has learned.

A senior State Department official tells NBC News that Gen. David Rodriguez and Sarah Sewall, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, both are in Nigeria to help the government recover the missing girls.

Nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped last month by Islamic militants Boko Haram.

Rodriguez is in charge of the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. His arrival comes as Nigeria's government said a "window of negotiation" is open with Boko Haram rebels.

"The window of negotiation is still open. The government had set up a committee to negotiate with Boko Haram so if they have any negotiation to make it should be channeled through the committee," Minister of Special Duties Tanimu Turaki told Reuters by telephone. Turaki heads up the negotiation committee.

U.S. surveillance aircraft are flying over remote areas of northeast Nigeria in search for the girls.The U.S. State Department said Washington had sent military, law-enforcement and development experts to Nigeria to help search for the missing schoolgirls.

"We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets over Nigeria with the government's permission," a U.S. official said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. teams on the ground "are digging in on the search and coordinating closely with the Nigerian government as well as international partners and allies."

— Catherine Chomiak

Reuters contributed to this report.

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