A top US defence department official has said Nigeria has been too slow to respond to the threat of Boko Haram but Washington is committed to helping fight the group and rescue more than 200 girls seized from their school a month ago.

US officials have said the effort to retrieve the girls was now a top priority but had been complicated by Nigeria's early reluctance to accept assistance, and by US rules that ban aid to foreign forces that have committed human rights abuses.

"In general Nigeria has failed to mount an effective campaign against Boko Haram," Alice Friend, the Pentagon's principal director for African affairs, told a Thursday hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Africa subcommittee.

"The Department has been deeply concerned for some time by how much the Government of Nigeria has struggled to keep pace with Boko Haram's growing capabilities," Friend said.

She added that it was "troubling" that atrocities had been perpetrated by some Nigerian forces during operations against Boko Haram.

Regional threat

Robert Jackson, acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Washington had urged Nigeria to reform its approach to the group.

"When soldiers destroy towns, kill civilians and detain innocent people with impunity, mistrust takes root," Jackson said.

The US embassy in the capital, Abuja, offered help almost immediately after the kidnapping. But it was two weeks before US Secretary of State John Kerry called Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to offer aid, which was accepted on May 4, Jackson said.

Friend said US reconnaissance flights started days later.

Nigeria has been reluctant to designate Boko Haram as "a terrorist threat" at the United Nations, but Jackson said it has changed its position and he expected that designation "imminently".

The officials described Boko Haram as a regional threat that was becoming international, with ties to al-Qaeda. They said the Pentagon and Department of State were developing a "regional response", including improved security along Nigeria's borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

"We've definitely determined that there are links between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. They have probably provided at least training, perhaps financial support," Jackson said.

Source: Reuters