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Pakistani teen seeks release of Nigerian girls

ABUJA, Nigeria — Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012, marked her 17th birthday Monday with a visit to Nigeria and urged Islamic extremists to free the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped three months ago, calling them her ‘‘sisters.’’

Yousafzai, an international symbol for women’s rights in the face of hard-line Islam, said Nigeria’s president promised to meet for the first time with the abducted girls’ parents.

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‘‘My birthday wish this year is ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ now and alive,’’ she said, using the social media slogan that has been picked up around the world to demand freedom for the girls, abducted by the group Boko Haram from a school in the remote town of Chibok.

Yousafzai appealed directly to their captors: ‘‘Lay down your weapons. Release your sisters. Release my sisters. Release the daughters of this nation. Let them be free. They have committed no crime.’’

She added: ‘‘You are misusing the name of Islam . . . the Koran teaches brotherhood.’’

Yousafzai also spoke against the custom of child brides in her home country, a tradition common in Nigeria, too. Boko Haram has threatened to sell some of the girls as brides if its fighters are not freed.

Boko Haram attacks continued over the weekend, with witnesses blaming the group for the bombing of a major bridge on a northeast Nigerian highway that further limits access to its base camps in the Sambisa Forest, where it is believed to be holding some of the girls.

Yousafzai met with Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, and told reporters he ‘‘promised me that the girls will be returned as soon as possible.’’

She described an emotional meeting Sunday with some of the girls’ parents.

‘‘I could see tears in their eyes. They were hopeless. But they seem to have this hope in their hearts.’’

Jonathan has not met with the parents. When activists tried to march peacefully to the presidential villa in May, they were blocked by police. Jonathan canceled a planned trip to Chibok that same month.

On Monday, he told Yousafzai that criticism his government is not doing enough ‘‘is very wrong and misplaced,’’ according to a presidential statement.

‘‘The great challenge in rescuing the Chibok girls is the need to ensure that they are rescued alive,’’ he said.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau put out a video Sunday in which he repeated demands that the government release detained insurgents in exchange for the girls’ freedom.

‘‘Nigerians are saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls,’ and we are telling Jonathan to bring back our arrested warriors, our army,’’ he said in the video.

Since the mass abduction, Boko Haram has increased the number and deadliness of its attacks, bombing cities and towns and gunning down people, looting livestock, and burning huts in the villages.

In the new video, Shekau crowed over recent victories. At least four people died in June 25 blasts. He also claimed responsibility for a bomb at the biggest shopping mall in Abuja that killed at least 21 people.

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