Their clothes had been replaced by a new uniform – drab veils of black and grey. One of the girls stepped forward amid the Koranic chanting to state that she and her classmates are unharmed. But her eyes and shaky voice told a story of fear and duress.
Almost a month after they were abducted from their school in northern Nigeria, the first evidence of the fate of about 130 of the stolen girls of Chibok emerged yesterday after Boko Haram released a video alleging the teenagers had converted to Islam.
In a 27-minute film combining purported footage of the schoolchildren with separate footage of its confident leader, the Islamist terror group offered to release some of the girls in return for comrades held by the Nigerian authorities.
The video was an apparent glimpse of what has happened to the children since 276 of them were seized in the dark on 14 April from the school where they were taking exams. Both the location and the date of the footage were unknown.
Read more: What is Boko Haram?
In what was also the first sign that their captors may be willing to negotiate as Nigerian forces supported by experts from Western states scour a vast area in search of the girls, the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau suggested they could be traded for the dozens of Islamist militants held in Nigeria’s prisons.
In pictures: Nigeria kidnapped schoolgirls
In pictures: Nigeria kidnapped schoolgirls
A total of 276 girls were abducted from the northeastern town of Chibok, in Borno state, which has a sizeable Christian community. Some 223 are still missing
One of the kidnapped girls looks into a camera
One of the missing girls talking to the camera
The missing Nigerian schoolgirls, wearing the full-length hijab and praying in an undisclosed rural location. Boko Haram alleging they had converted them to Islam
Girls wearing the full-length hijab holding a flag reading "There is no god, but Allah" and "Mohammed is Allah's prophet"
A man claiming to be the leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau
Abubakar Shekau speaks on the video
Girls, wearing the full-length hijab and praying are filmed by an unidentified man (R) in an undisclosed rural location
People carry signs as they attend a protest demanding the release of abducted secondary school girls in the remote village of Chibok in Lagos
A protester demonstrates against the kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria, outside the Nigerian Embassy in London
Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Prime Minister David Cameron appearing on the BBC1 current affairs programme
People participate in a "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign demonstration and candlelight vigil in Los Angeles
Girls holding heart shaped banners in a "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign demonstration and candlelight vigil in Los Angeles
14/19 South Africa
South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to rescue them, during a march to the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg
Karilyn Coates (10) joins others in a candlelight vigil for the more than 300 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, at All Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs
Mothers of the missing Chibok school girls abducted by Boko Haram Islamists gather to receive informations from officials. Nigeria's president said that Boko Haram's mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls would mark a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, as world powers joined the search to rescue the hostages
Former Nigerian Education Minister and Vice-President of the World Bank's Africa division (3rd L) Obiageli Ezekwesilieze speaks as she leads a march of Nigeria women and mothers of the kidnapped girls of Chibok, calling for their freedom in Abuja
18/19 Bring Back Our Girls
Kelly Hoppen tweeted: 'Please make sure you do this, we must stand together and not forget them'
19/19 Bring Back Our Girls
E.L. Rock Star tweeted: 'Join The Movement'
The proposition was initially rejected out of hand by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, which has been castigated at home for its seemingly lethargic response to the mass kidnapping and an earlier threat by Shekau to sell the girls as brides.
Abba Moro, the Nigerian Interior Minister, told Agence France Presse that the authorities were not prepared to trade the schoolchildren. Mr Moro said: “The issue in question is not about Boko Haram giving conditions.”
That position was backed by the father of one of the captive girls. He said: “It’s not right. They’ll do it again.”
But last night the government appeared to shift ground and leave open the option of negotiation by saying it was reviewing “all options”.
Gathered under a tree, scores of girls were shown on the video. In the background two of their number held a black banner carrying the slogan of Boko Haram, whose title translates loosely as “Western education is sinful”.
As the camera panned across the group, three of the girls, who come from a mainly Christian community, were ushered forward. Two said they were Christian and had converted to Islam while the other said she is Muslim and the group was unharmed.
The teenagers appeared cowed and fearful with many casting their eyes down to the ground. Their appearance was in stark contrast to four of their classmates who escaped the kidnappers and were filmed in recent days in the bright traditional garb of their region.
Read more: They are quiet, docile, passive, all in grey
What can be done about Boko Haram?
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau
At one point the camera showed one of the girls’ captors, wearing paramilitary garb with a gun slung over his shoulder as he held a small video camera. The footage showed just over half of the 223 girls who remain missing, possibly adding credence to reports that the abductees have been split into at least two groups.
Speaking in the local Hausa language and Arabic, Shekau appeared separately, dressed in military fatigues and wielding an AK-47 as he set out his terms, at times laughing and staring defiantly into the camera. He said: “These girls you occupy yourselves with … we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims.”
The Boko Haram leader added: “If you want us to release the girls, those who have not accepted Islam will be treated as the Prophet treated infidels and they will stay with us. We will not release them while you detain our brothers.”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister David Cameron this weekend refused to rule out sending British troops to help recover the girls and bolster a team of counter-terrorism and intelligence experts already working in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
A spokesman for Mr Cameron said: “[The video] underlines the horror and barbarity of the actions in the kidnapping of these girls. It underlines the importance of working with and in support of the Nigerian authorities and Nigerian people in terms of trying to bring about the release of the kidnapped girls.”
Israel became the latest country to have its offer of expert help accepted by Mr Jonathan yesterday.
The Sambisa Forest, on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon where it is presumed the girls have been taken, is three times the size of Wales.
The scale of the kidnapping and the threat of Shekau to sell the teenagers “in the market” have provoked international outrage and a global campaign to secure their release.
Officials have privately accepted that Boko Haram may have been successful in penetrating army and government structures in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north.
Residents of Gamboru, a border town repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram, including in an incident last week in which 300 people were killed, announced yesterday that they are moving across the border to Cameroon because they could no longer rely on Nigerian forces to protect them.