Speaking on the eve of Mothers’ Day in the US, Obama described the abduction as an “unconscionable act” carried out by a terrorist group determined to keep girls from getting an education and as “grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.”
Obama said she and President Barack Obama were “outraged and heartbroken” over the abduction of the girls from their boarding school dormitory last month by Boko Haram militants.
In the latest violence Islamic extremists blew up a bridge, killed an unknown number of people and abducted the wife and two children of a retired police officer in an attack on the village of Liman Kara, in northeast Nigeria on Friday night. More than 3,000 people fled the village during the attack.
“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” Obama said, referring to their children Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12.
“We see their hopes, their dreams and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”
Obama, who earlier this week tweeted a picture of herself in the White House holding a sign with the message “#BringBackOurGirls” continued: “What happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident. It’s a story we see every day as girls around the world risk their lives to pursue their ambitions.”
She then cited the Pakistani schoolgirl and campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot and wounded by the Taleban for speaking out for girls’ education.
The First Lady’s intervention comes amid international outrage and growing pressure on the Nigerian government to take immediate and effective action to find the 276 girls abducted on 14 April in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria.
Reports yesterday suggested that the girls have been split up into at least four groups by their captors, complicating any plans to launch a raid to rescue them.
The search for the girls is reported to be closing in on the Sambisa forest – Boko Haram’s “hideout” near the border with Cameroon.
British and American officials are using advanced eavesdropping equipment to scan the forest, covering around 60,000 square kilometres, where the schoolgirls are thought to be located.
Known as the “evil” forest it is dotted with tents and lined with tunnels used by armed fighters.
Boko Haram has admitted capturing the girls, saying they should not have been in school and should get married instead.
In a video, group leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to “sell” the students as slaves. This has led to air and satellite surveillance being extended to the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger in case the girls are being trafficked across the border as slaves.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, began its insurgency in Borno state in 2009. Meanwhile a team of experts from the UK has arrived in Nigeria to help with the hunt for the schoolgirls, the Foreign Office said.
They are in the capital Abuja to help bolster the international effort to find the girls and also to defeat Boko Haram, the Islamic extremists who took them.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The team is drawn from across government, including the Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence, and will work with the Nigerian authorities on the abductions and terrorism in Nigeria.
“The team will be considering not just the recent incidents but also longer-term counter-terrorism solutions to prevent such attacks in the future and defeat Boko Haram.
“The team will be working closely with their US counterparts and others to co-ordinate efforts.”
China, France and Spain have also promised help.
Prime Minister David Cameron has described the abduction is “a ghastly situation, an act of pure evil”.
Yesterday a few of the schoolgirls who made a dramatic escape from their captors told of their harrowing ordeal as they fled for their lives.
“They took us away in a convoy of lorries,” one of them said.
“We travelled through the night before reaching the final destination in the forest.
“The following day we were sent to fetch water. That was when we seized the opportunity and bolted.
“Even when they were shooting at us, we took the chance and God helped us arrive in Chibok two days later.”
A second girl added: “They threatened to shoot anyone who tried to escape. As the vehicle slowed down along the road I jumped down with my friend.
“We spent the night in the bush and trekked back to Chibok the next day.”
Shettima Haruma, whose daughter was among those taken, said he was “angry” with the Nigerian government’s response.
“We beg Nigerians, those in another country like America or Britain ... it’s three weeks, nearly one month and we haven’t seen any letters from our daughters,” he said.
In a strongly-worded statement the UN Security Council in New York stressed its “profound outrage” at the kidnapping and condemned it “in the strongest terms”.
Amnesty International has released a report claiming that the Nigerian security forces had advance warning that Boko Haram was on its way to the school but failed to take any action.
Susanna Flood, spokeswoman for the international human rights group, said: “This abduction could have been prevented.”
The findings by Amnesty International echo accounts of a number of the parents and villagers, of an ineffective military response in the days and weeks after the girls were abducted.
“This is really outrageous, unbelievable,” Nigeria’s minister of information Labaran Maku said.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s government vowed to investigate the allegations but defended its military response and questioned the motive behind the accounts. The social media campaign – dubbed #BringBackOurGirls – is continuing to grow with members of the public, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Leona Lewis and politicians including Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, voicing their support.
#BringBackOurGirls events in Scotland included a rally yesterday afternoon in St Enoch’s Square in Glasgow.