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Nigeria: Years After Boko Haram Kidnapping, Dozens of Girls Are Freed, Nigeria Says

Thursday 11 May 2017, by siawi3


Years After Boko Haram Kidnapping, Dozens of Girls Are Freed, Nigeria Says


MAY 6, 2017

Photo: Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram three years ago after their release. On Sunday they were in Abuja, the capital, where they were to meet President Muhammadu Buhari. Credit Olamikan Gbemiga/Associated Press

DAKAR, Senegal — Dozens of the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants just over three years ago in the Nigerian village of Chibok have been released as part of an exchange for detained suspects from the militant group, a statement from Nigeria’s president said early Sunday.

The release of the girls is by far the biggest breakthrough in a tragedy that has come to define the nearly eight-year war against Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that has burned, killed and kidnapped its way across parts of West Africa, killing thousands and causing millions to flee for their lives.

The government, after lengthy negotiations, handed over “some Boko Haram suspects held by authorities†in exchange for 82 of the girls, according to a statement from a spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari. The statement credited the government of Switzerland, the International Committee of the Red Cross, local and international nongovernmental organizations, the military and security agencies with facilitating the exchange.

The girls were expected to arrive in Abuja, the capital, on Sunday to meet with Mr. Buhari.

“The president has repeatedly expressed his total commitment towards ensuring the safe return of the #ChibokGirls, and all other Boko Haram captives,†the statement said, referring to one of the social media campaigns on behalf of the girls.

Related Coverage
Chibok Girls, 3 Years Later: Anguished Parents Still Wait APRIL 14, 2017
Beneath Mask of Normal Nigerian Life, Young Lives Scarred by Boko Haram MARCH 18, 2017
In Nigeria, Joy for Girls Freed by Boko Haram. What of the Rest? OCT. 14, 2016
Victims of Boko Haram, and Now Shunned by Their Communities MAY 18, 2016
Explaining Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency NOV. 10, 2014

The girls were released near Banki, a town in northeastern Nigeria along the border with Cameroon, according to an official who was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity. Some reports indicated that the number of girls released was closer to 60. The girls first will fly to Maiduguri, a major city in the northeast where Boko Haram is most active, the official said.

To much of the world, the mass abduction of nearly 300 girls from a Nigerian school as they prepared for exams three years ago was a shocking introduction to the atrocities and humanitarian crises caused by Boko Haram, galvanizing global attention to a militant group that had already been terrorizing Nigerians for years.

An international campaign, led by Nigerians but joined by prominent figures around the globe like Michelle Obama, then the first lady, demanded immediate action to bring the girls home. But the leader of Boko Haram scoffed at the world’s sudden attention to Nigeria’s upheaval and shrugged off the global outrage, vowing to sell the girls in the market and “give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves.â€

“We would marry them out at the age of 9,†warned the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. “We would marry them out at the age of 12.â€

Until now, only about 22 of the girls have been found or released, some with the help of the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. And even with the dozens believed to be released on Saturday, well over 100 girls are still thought to be in Boko Haram’s clutches, many possibly married to fighters or forced to become combatants themselves. Previously released girls have told family members that some of the girls from Chibok have died in childbirth or in military raids.

Beyond that, many hundreds, if not thousands, of other girls and boys have been abducted by Boko Haram over the years, forcing them to fight, to cook, to clean and to bear children. Pregnant young women, a woman with a baby on her back and even children as young as 7 or 8 have been used as suicide bombers by the group, deployed as human weapons who have brought destruction to markets and even camps of desperate people fleeing the violence.

Ayuba Alamson Chibok, a community leader in the village who had two relatives kidnapped from the school, said he was thrilled at the news of the release, saying that it “has already ignited yet another light of hope that the remaining ones would be released.â€

A State Department official said late Saturday that the United States was monitoring the situation but had no further comment.

The Nigerian military has made major gains against Boko Haram in recent months, penetrating forest hide-outs and retaking territory once held by militants. Government officials had indicated that they were negotiating for the release of more of the girls from Chibok.

Officials have known the whereabouts of some of the girls for more than a year. Western diplomats had said that intelligence showed months ago that a group of dozens of the girls had been moved to a spot near the border with Cameroon. Sending in soldiers to free them was not a viable option because of worries that the fighters would kill the girls, or the girls would be killed during the operation.

Mr. Buhari vowed repeatedly to bring the girls home, but in recent months he has been ill, spending several weeks at the start of the year in Britain for undisclosed medical reasons. The release of the girls would bolster the presidency of the ailing Mr. Buhari, who has missed recent cabinet meetings though he was seen in public late last week.

The search for the missing girls has gone through may twists and turns over the years, sometimes resulting in false reports of progress. At times, government and military officials have been quoted in the Nigerian news media as saying that a cease-fire deal had been struck with the militants or that the release of the kidnapped girls had been arranged, statements that later proved to be untrue.

“I need to see it myself,†said Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Abducted Chibok Girls Parents Movement for Rescue, one of several groups working for the release of all the girls.

Ibrahim Sawab contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.