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PARIS (Reuters) - France on Wednesday joined the United States and Britain in offering to send security service agents to Nigeria to help rescue more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
With more than 4,000 troops operating between Mali to the west and Central African Republic to the east, Paris has a major interest in preventing Nigeria's security situation from deteriorating, having previously voiced concerns that Boko Haram could spread further north into the Sahel.
Having ousted al Qaeda-linked militants from Mali last year, France is planning to redeploy its forces across West Africa this summer to target Islamist groups taking advantage of porous borders between southern Libya, northern Chad and Niger.
"The President has instructed ... to put the (intelligence) services at the disposal of Nigeria and neighbouring countries," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers.
"This morning he asked us to contact the Nigerian president to tell him that a specialised unit with all the means we have in the region was at the disposal of Nigeria to help find and recover these young girls."
Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last month and has threatened to sell them into slavery, causing global outrage and bringing the Nigerian-based group firmly into the international spotlight.
"In the face of such ignominy France must react. This crime cannot be left unpunished," Fabius said.
A French diplomatic source said Paris had an existing military and intelligence cooperation with Nigeria, but that it was offering an additional "specialised team" from the external DGSE intelligence service.
"The Nigerian authorities have to get back to us and tell us exactly what their needs are," the source said, adding Fabius was due to speak to his Nigerian counterpart later on Wednesday.
President Francois Hollande, during a trip to Abuja in February, promised help to fight Boko Haram, saying Nigeria's struggle was also that of France.
"This may be the catalyst the international community needs to fight Boko Haram," another diplomat said.
In February 2013, the group kidnapped a French family of seven on holiday in northern Cameroon, releasing them months later.
Hollande at the time denied a ransom had been paid, but a confidential Nigerian government report seen by Reuters said Boko Haram was given the equivalent of $3.15 million by French and Cameroonian negotiators.
The kidnapping was one of a series of attacks on French targets in West Africa since France launched a military intervention in Mali to oust al Qaeda Islamists who had forged links with Boko Haram.
Nigeria has complained that the Far North region of Cameroon is being used by Boko Haram militants to transport weapons and hide from a six-month military offensive against them. It has appealed to Cameroon to tighten border security.
Officials in Niger, where France has based surveillance drones, have also voiced concern about infiltration by Boko Haram across the country's southern border.
"We're already at the forefront of the fight against terrorists in the Sahel and with borders so easy to cross these groups are linked," one of the diplomats said. "We have knowledge in neighbouring countries that can help."
Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Andrew Callus