Nigeria’s military has located nearly 300 school girls abducted by Islamic extremists but fears using force to try to free them could get them killed, the country’s chief of defence said on Monday.

Air Marshal Alex Badeh told demonstrators supporting the much criticised military that Nigerian troops can save the girls. But he added, “we can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.”

Asked by reporters where they had found the girls, Mr. Badeh refused to elaborate. “We want our girls back. I can tell you we can do it. Our military can do it. But where they are held, can we go with force?” he asked the crowd.

People roared back, “No!”

“If we go with force what will happen?” Mr. Badeh asked.

“They will die,” the demonstrators responded.

That appeared to leave negotiation the sole option, but a human rights activist close to negotiators said a deal to swap the girls for detained Boko Haram members was agreed last week and then scuttled at the last minute by President Goodluck Jonathan.

The activist who is close to those mediating between Boko Haram extremists and government officials said the girls would have been freed last week on Monday.

Mr. Jonathan had already told British officials that he would not consider an exchange. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Nigeria’s military and government have faced national and international outrage over their failure to rescue the girls seized by Boko Haram militants from a remote northeastern school six weeks ago.

President Jonathan was forced this month to accept international help. American planes have been searching for the girls and Britain, France, Israel and other countries have sent experts in surveillance and hostage negotiation.

A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said the department cannot confirm the reports about the Nigerian girls at this point. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation, spoke on background.

Mr. Jonathan’s reluctance to accept offered help for weeks is seen as unwillingness to have outsiders looking in on what is considered a very corrupt force.

More than 300 teenagers were abducted from their school in the town Chibok on April 15. Police say 53 escaped on their own and 276 remain captive.

A Boko Haram video has shown some of the girls reciting Quranic verses in Arabic and two of them explaining why they had converted from Christianity to Islam in captivity. Unverified reports have indicated two may have died of snake bites and that some have been forced to marry their abductors and that some may have been carried across borders into Chad and Cameroon.

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