(CNN) — The United States deployed 80 members of its armed forces to Chad to help in the search for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, the White House said Wednesday.
“These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” it said in a letter.
“The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required.”
President Barack Obama informed the House speaker and the president of the Senate of the move.
The forces will be involved in maintaining aircraft and analyzing data, but because they are armed, the President is required by law to inform the speaker of the House, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
“These are not combat infantry troops that we put into Chad,” Kirby told CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on Wednesday. “These are folks that are there to support the reconnaissance mission.”
Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls last month from a school in northern Nigeria. Officials have speculated that the militants may have transported them to neighboring Chad or Cameroon, but it’s not clear where the girls are or whether they’ve left Nigeria.
So why are troops deploying to Chad?
“Just geographically, Chad’s a great location to do this from,” Kirby said, adding that the United States has a good relationship with its government.
Reconnaissance flights will be searching an area roughly the size of West Virginia, he said, that includes parts of Nigeria and other countries.
The deployment is not based on any new intelligence leads, a senior administration official said.
“The truth is, we don’t know exactly where they are,” Kirby said. “We still believe that they’ve broken up into small groups and dispersed.”
A U.S. Predator drone will now be aiding in the search for the girls, a Pentagon official told CNN. Half of the new group of U.S. troops will be operating the launch and recovery of the unarmed drone on its missions, and half of them will be providing security on the ground in Chad.
Nigeria asks U.N. to designate Boko Haram as terrorist group
Also Wednesday, Nigeria asked the United Nations to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization as its escalating attacks spread alarm nationwide.
If approved, it will enable countries to impose arms embargoes, travel bans and asset freezes.
A United Nations al Qaeda committee is expected to decide when it meets Thursday. Nigeria’s request lists the terror group as an affiliate of al Qaeda.
This is a “significant step” in the fight against terror, said Joy Ogwu, the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations.
The United States branded Boko Haram a terrorist group last year, providing greater access to its finances and more ability to limit its movements. U.S. officials have said Boko Haram does not have financing in the United States.
The insurgent group has escalated its attacks in Africa’s most populous nation as its bloodletting extends far beyond its hotbed in the rural northeast.
In attacks that appear to be getting more frequent, twin blasts killed at least 118 people Tuesday at a market in the central city of Jos.
The explosions went off 20 to 30 minutes apart, sparking an inferno that sent crowds running and screaming, covered in blood.
Nigerian authorities described the blasts as “terrorist activities” but declined to speculate on who might be responsible.
In separate attacks in Borno state this week, at least 30 people were killed by members of the terror group, according to local residents.
Boko Haram attackers swooped in on motorcycles Monday and killed 10 people in one village, residents said.
A day later, gunmen stormed a nearby village and killed 20 others, residents said.
During the attacks, Boko Haram set fire to homes and food stores, residents said, and fired machine guns. The group has not claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Both villages are close to where the more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped. Boko Haram claimed responsibility in a chilling video and said he was willing to free the girls in exchange for imprisoned militants.
“These vicious attacks on defenseless Nigerian civilians and Boko Haram’s abduction last month of more than 200 girls in Chibok are unconscionable, terrorist acts demanding accountability and justice,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Officials condemn attacks, vow to stamp out terrorism
The sudden escalation of attacks, together with the failure to find the missing schoolgirls, has spread concern about the government’s inability to quash the insurgency. Protesters have gathered daily nationwide to express frustration over the lack of progress in rescuing the schoolgirls.
“Last weekend in Paris the international community and regional leaders made clear their collective determination to support Nigeria and defeat the scourge of terrorism,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement.
“The Jos attack has only strengthened our resolve.”
Nigeria and four neighboring countries — including Chad — will share intelligence and border surveillance in the search for the missing girls while Western nations will provide technical expertise and training in a new effort against the extremists.
The plan was announced over the weekend during a security summit hosted by French President Francois Hollande to address the growing threats from the group.
Boko Haram translates to “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language. It says its aim is to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Nigeria, which is split between a majority Muslim north and a mostly Christian south.
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