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 the Nigerian President said early yesterday.
If confirmed, 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, resulting in the deaths of thousands and causing millions to flee for their lives.
After lengthy negotiations, the government handed over "some Boko Haram suspects held by the authorities" in exchange for 82 of the girls, according to a statement by a spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari.
The statement credited the Swiss government, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), local and international non-governmental organisations, the military and security agencies with facilitating the exchange.
The girls were taken to the Nigerian capital Abuja yesterday and were due to to meet 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 the girls' behalf.
The girls were released near Banki, a town in north-eastern Nigeria along the border with Cameroon, according to an official who was not authorised to speak to the media and requested anonymity. Some reports indicated that the number of girls released was closer to 60.
The girls would first fly to Maiduguri, a major city in the north-east 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 were preparing for their exams three years ago was a shocking introduction to the atrocities by Boko Haram, galvanising global attention to a group that had been terrorising Nigerians for years.
An international campaign, led by Nigerians but joined by prominent figures such as then United States First Lady Michelle Obama, called for immediate action.
But Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau scoffed at the world's sudden attention to Nigeria's upheaval and shrugged off the global outrage, vowing to sell the girls at the market and "give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves". "We would marry them out at the age of nine," he warned. "We would marry them out at the age of 12."
Until now, only about 22 of the girls have been found or released, some with the help of the Swiss government and the ICRC. And even with the dozens believed to be released on Saturday, well over 100 girls are still believed to be in Boko Haram's clutches, many possibly married to fighters or forced to become combatants.
The search for the 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 ceasefire 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 Mr Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Abducted Chibok Girls Parents Movement for Rescue, one of several groups working for the release of the girls.