MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- President Goodluck Jonathan cancelled his first anticipated visit Friday to the traumatized town from which Islamic extremists abducted more than 300 schoolgirls a month ago, according to the Reuters news agency.
A community leader from the town told The Associated Press before the cancellation that the president's expected visit was to be "better late than never."
It would have been Jonathan's first visit to the scene of the attack in the northeastern region that has suffered five years of increasingly deadly assaults by Nigeria's homegrown terrorist network. Jonathan, a Christian from the south, has been accused of insensitivity to the plight of the mainly Muslim northerners. Thousands have been killed over the years and more than 1,500 civilians have died in the insurgency this year alone.
According to Reuters, a senior government official confirmed that Jonathan had cancelled the trip due to security fears, and would fly directly to a summit in Paris on the Boko Haram insurgency from Abuja instead.
Residents of the town of Chibok, where the girls were kidnapped, have expressed anger at the slow response of Jonathan's government and the military's failure to rescue the girls. Last week the militants threatened in a video to sell the girlsand young women into slavery unless the government frees detained insurgents. British officials say Jonathan has told them he will not consider an exchange. National and international outrage over the girls' plight likely prompted Jonathan to belatedly accept international help in the search last week.
The United States this week started flying aircraft over the area in search of the girls, U.S. officials said. Residents of Chibok have not seen any planes, said community leader Pobu Bitrus. The girls are likely in the vast Sambisa forest which begins 20 miles from Chibok.
Bitrus told AP that residents had expected Jonathan on Friday and were not bitter about the belated attention. He pointed out that the Nigerian leader may have been misled by politicians and his wife who have suggested the kidnappings did not happen or were engineered to embarrass Jonathan and his administration.
People "are just expecting him. We don't take offense in this part of the world if something is late," Bitrus said by telephone from Chibok, before Jonathan's cancellation. "The president had information earlier contradicting what happened, but this visit is better late than never."
Jonathan was expected to travel from Abuja, the capital in central Nigeria, on one of his presidential jets to the northeastern Borno state capital of Maiduguri and then be flown to Chibok, 80 miles to the south, on a military helicopter. The road, which passes by the Sambisa Forest to which the girls first were taken and which is a known hideout of the insurgents, has been attacked many times. Soldiers say 12 troops were killed in an ambush on that road on Monday night. The Defense Ministry said four soldiers were killed in a firefight on the outskirts of Chibok that night.
The presidency said Jonathan is still traveling on Friday to Paris for a French-organized summit including leaders of Nigeria's four neighbors to discuss how to address the regional threat posed by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram insurgents on April 15 abducted more than 300 students from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School. Police say 53 managed to escape and 276 remain in captivity.