Boko Haram is seeking a ransom of nearly £40m for the release of the 219 schoolgirls that it kidnapped from the Nigerian town of Chibok two years ago, sources close to the group have told The Sunday Telegraph.
The terror sect is thought to have issued the demand during secret contacts with the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who has said he is willing to negotiate for the girls' freedom.
The group's leader, Abubakr Shekau, had previously demanded the release of jailed comrades in exchange for the girls. But a deal along those lines - brokered by the Red Cross - fell through after Nigerian prison officials said that commanders on a list given to them by Boko Haram were not in their custody.
Details of the new ransom request emerged ahead of the second anniversary of the girls kidnapping on the night of April 14, 2014, when they were abducted by Boko Haram gunmen posing as soldiers. One source close to Boko Haram said that around three months ago, Boko Haram sent a message saying it would exchange the girls for a ransom of 10bn Naira, the equivalent of around £36m.
"The ransom demand has split the government," said the source. "Some think it would be worth it just to resolve the Chibok situation, but others say it will simply allow Boko Haram to hire yet more insurgent recruits."
The same source also said that a month after the ransom demand, Boko Haram had secretly passed the government a new video tape showing 15 of the kidnapped girls.
"The girls are asked what their Christian names are and what their new Muslim names are," he said, referring to the "conversion" that Boko Haram forces Christian prisoners to undergo. "They are also asked if they have been raped or mistreated, but they say no - they look relaxed."Asked about the ransom demand, diplomats said only that they were aware of "rumours" of contacts of various sorts.
However, others involved in past attempts to free the girls claim that no proper "proof of life" video has ever been issued by Boko Haram, and dismiss talk of the group being interested in either ransom demands or prisoner swaps.