Canadian special forces soldiers are in Nigeria helping the government search for hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
Canada's contribution is part of a widening Western effort to help find the girls and comes as the Nigerian government now says it's open to negotiating for their release. This comes amid deepening security ties between Canada and Nigeria.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasized Tuesday that Canadian soldiers are not engaged in combat and will not accompany Nigerian forces in battle.
"They are there to provide liaison and to assist Nigerian authorities in their search," Mr. Harper told the Commons Tuesday. "The kidnapping of these schoolgirls by Boko Haram is obviously repugnant to everything that we believe in as Canadians, and most people in the world believe in. Our hearts are with these girls and their families."
News of Canada's role came as a Nigerian government official said "all options" were open in the effort to free the girls, who were shown fearful and huddled together dressed in grey Islamic veils as they sang verses from the Koran under the guns of their captors in a video released this week.
U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were flying Tuesday over Nigeria in the search for the nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls, a day after Boko Haram released the first evidence that at least some of them are still alive and demanded that jailed fighters be swapped for their freedom.
The Conservative government refused to divulge more details about Canada's troop presence in Nigeria. One week ago, it first offered to provide surveillance equipment and the expertise to operate this hardware.
Canadian special forces troops have recent experience in Africa. Several years back, Canadian Special Operations Regiment troops provided training to Mali's military, which has been battling al-Qaeda insurgents.
In March, the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria was quoted in that country's media discussing anti-terrorism training that Canada is providing the African country to fight insurgents such as Boko Haram. According to The Punch, a Nigerian newspaper, High Commissioner Perry Calderwood said Canada is "already investigating the techniques to track the insurgents, and we would assist the security forces to combat the threat."
Since 2009, Canada has contributed more than $500,000 toward counterterrorism initiatives to help boost Nigeria's capacity to prevent, respond to and ultimately stop terrorist acts, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development explained Tuesday. This has focused on building the operational capacity of law enforcement and security forces.
In April, after the schoolgirls were first kidnapped, Nigeria's government initially said there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram, but that stance appeared to have been relaxed amid growing public outrage at home and abroad over the failure to rescue them.
Mike Omeri, the director of the Nigerian government's information agency, said all options were being considered, including the possibility of a military operation with foreign help.
"At the moment, because all options are open, we are interacting with experts, military and intelligence experts from other parts of the world," he said late Monday. "These are part of the options that are available to us."
In a statement late Tuesday, authorities in Borno state said 54 girls in the video had been identified, including four of some 50 students who managed to escape their captors.
"Fifty-four of the girls in the video have been identified by their names in an exercise that involved some parents of the girls, fellow students, some teachers, security men and some officials of the Borno state government," said Isa Umar Gusau, a spokesman for the Borno state governor.
With a report from the Associated Press