WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. will do everything it can to help Nigeria find nearly 300 teenage girls who have been missing since they were abducted from school three weeks ago by an Islamist extremist group that has threatened to sell them.
Finding the girls is the immediate priority, Obama said, and dealing with the Boko Haram group is a close second.
"In the short term our goal is obviously is to help the international community, and the Nigerian government, as a team to do everything we can to recover these young ladies," Obama said in an interview with Al Roker of NBC's "Today" program. "But we're also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that ... can cause such havoc in people's day-to-day lives."
Obama said the Nigerian government has accepted technical assistance from U.S. military and law enforcement officials.
"We're going to do everything we can to provide assistance to them," the president said.
Obama said the April 15 abduction, which has ignited international outrage and mounting demands for Nigeria to do more to find and free the girls before they are harmed, is a "terrible situation."
"Boko Haram, this terrorist organization that's been operating in Nigeria, has been killing people and innocent civilians for a very long time," Obama said, adding that the group long has been identified as one of the worst local or regional terrorist organizations in the world. "I can only imagine what the parents are going through," added Obama, a father of two daughters ages 15 and 12.
The technical experts, including a team to be put together by the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, will include U.S. military and law enforcement personnel skilled in intelligence, investigations, hostage negotiating, information sharing and victim assistance, as well as officials with expertise in other areas, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The U.S. was not considering sending armed forces, Carney noted.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. has been in touch with Nigeria "from day one" of the crisis. But repeated offers of U.S. assistance were ignored until Kerry and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan spoke Tuesday amid growing international concern over the fate of the girls in the weeks since their abduction from their school in the country's remote northeast.
Kerry said Nigeria apparently had its own strategy for how to proceed, but realizes that more needs to be done.
"I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort," Kerry said at a State Department news conference. "And it will begin immediately. I mean, literally, immediately."
A statement from Jonathan's office said the U.S. offer "includes the deployment of U.S. security personnel and assets to work with their Nigerian counterparts in the search and rescue operation." The statement added that Nigeria's security agencies are working at "full capacity" to find the girls and would appreciate the addition of American "counter-insurgency know-how and expertise."
Nigeria's police have said more than 300 girls were abducted. Of that number, 276 remain in captivity and 53 escaped.
Nigeria's Islamic extremist leader, Abubakar Shekau, has threatened to sell the girls. Shekau also claimed responsibility for the abduction and warned that his group, Boko Haram, will attack more schools and abduct more girls. The group's name means "Western education is sinful."
The State Department on Tuesday warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Nigeria.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report. Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap