Posted: Sunday, May 7, 2017 – 10:33 AM
(AFP) Eighty-two of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria in 2014 arrived in Abuja on Sunday to meet President Muhammadu Buhari after a prisoner swap deal secured their release.
Presidency spokesman Femi Adesina said the schoolgirls from Chibok, in Borno state, were met at the capital’s airport by Buhari’s chief of staff Abba Kyari and taken to a medical facility for checks.
“Welcome our girls, welcome our sisters, we are glad to have you back,” Kyari told them, describing it as “a very joyous moment”.
Military and civilian militia sources in the town of Banki, on the border with Cameroon, said the girls had left for Borno state capital Maiduguri on board six military helicopters at 6:10 am (0510 GMT).
“One of the girls was carrying a baby with her, a boy of less than two years,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which said it “facilitated the safe return” of the girls as a “neutral intermediary”, tweeted photographs of girls boarding a military helicopter.
A meeting with Buhari, who was swept to power in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram, had been scheduled for 4:00 pm local time ( 1500 GMT), officials in Abuja said.
But there was no sign of the girls by 6:00 pm, an AFP reporter at the presidency said.
- Prisoner swap -
The presidency announced late on Saturday that months of talks with the jihadists had “yielded results” some six months after 21 other Chibok girls were freed with the help of international mediators.
“Today 82 more Chibok girls were released,” a statement said.
“After lengthy negotiations, our security agencies have taken back these girls, in exchange for some Boko Haram suspects held by the authorities.”
No details were given about how many suspects were released or their identities.
But AFP understands at least three suspected senior commanders, all of them Chadian nationals, were handed over.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said he could not confirm claims as many five militants were released.
- Symbol of conflict -
Boko Haram fighters stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on the evening of April 14, 2014, and kidnapped 276 teenaged girls who were preparing to sit high school exams.
Fifty-seven managed to escape in the hours that followed but the remaining 219 were held by the group.
Boko Haram’s Shekau claimed in a video message that they had converted to Islam.
The audacious kidnapping brought the insurgency to world attention, triggering global outrage that galvanised support from the former US first lady Michelle Obama and Hollywood stars.
The girls have become a symbol of the Nigerian conflict. Last month, parents and supporters marked the three-year anniversary of the abduction, describing the situation as an unending “nightmare”.
But they said previous releases had given them strength.
Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose two daughters were among those kidnapped, said of the latest releases: “This is good news to us. We have been waiting for this day.
“We hope the remaining girls will soon be released.”
Military and civilian militia sources in Banki said the girls were brought back to the town in ICRC vehicles late on Saturday afternoon and stayed in the military barracks there overnight.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war, seizing thousands of women and children, and forcibly recruiting young men and boys into their ranks.
In a less publicised attack in November 2014, some 300 children were among about 500 people kidnapped from the town of Damasak, on the border with Niger, in the far north of Borno state.
Most are still missing.
- Ongoing talks -
The release of the 21 girls in October last year followed talks between Boko Haram and the Nigerian authorities brokered by the ICRC and the Swiss government.
Three other girls have also been found. The first had a baby and was accompanied by a man she said was her husband but the military said was a Boko Haram suspect.
Shekau has previously said the girls would be released if militant fighters held in government custody were freed.
When the 21 were freed, Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the government was hoping to secure the release of 83 others being held by a different Boko Haram faction.
A total of 113 Chibok girls are now missing, although Shekau claimed last August that some had been killed in military air strikes.
On Friday, Britain and the United States issued a security alert warning of a Boko Haram plot to kidnap foreigners in the Banki area, which led to the suspension of aid flights to the town on Saturday.
© Agence France-Presse