By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - The United States is considering a request by Nigeria to provide surveillance aircraft and intelligence to find more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Islamist militants, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.
"The Nigerians have asked for assistance in that area and we are considering it," Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant-secretarty of State for African Affairs, said in an interview.
U.S. military, law-enforcement and development experts, including some skilled in hostage negotiations, started arriving in Nigeria on Thursday to help search for the missing girls and tackle the rising threat from Boko Haram. France, Britain and China have also offered help.
Thomas-Greenfield said the United States has worked with Nigeria since September on improving the African country's ability to fight Boko Haram following a request by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to President Barack Obama.
Obama has vowed to" do to everything we can" to help find the girls, whose April 14 abduction from a secondary school triggered international outrage.
A social media campaign, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, has focused on the Nigerian government's response to the kidnappings and on Boko Haram's other attacks and kidnappings, which have terrorized local communities.
While Nigeria has sought help from the United States, the government had often been reluctant to take the advice, according to U.S. officials. Cooperation has also been complicated by international concerns about human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces in the northeast.
Human rights groups have highlighted illegal detentions, torture and deaths of prisoners at Giwa Barracks where the Nigerian military has imprisoned young men accused of being Boko Haram members in the past several years. Many prisoners held were bystanders rounded up in mass sweeps, rights groups say.
Thomas-Greenfield said Jonathan has been "very, very receptive" to the latest offer for U.S. assistance and assigned his national security adviser to work with the U.S. teams.
"I caution that we can't make this our own problem because Nigerians have to be front and center, we can't lead it and we can't fix it."
Speaking at the World Economic Forum being hosted in the Nigerian capital Abuja, Jonathan pledged to find the girls and thanked foreign nations for their support.
Thomas-Greenfield said Boko Haram was not just a security issue but also a development challenge faced by the Nigerian government in one of the poorest areas of the country.
"Boko Haram has been able to use the lack of development, the disaffection with the government, to entice young people to come into their fold," she said. "It is a double-edged sword that needs to be not only sharpened but also blunted."
She said problems with Boko Haram, which also operates out of neighboring Cameroon, had also highlighed the need to develop a regional strategy to fight increased Islamic militancy in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio)