Twenty-one of Nigeria's Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram more than two years ago have been freed in a swap for detained leaders of the Islamic extremist group, the government and military said Thursday.
Some 197 girls remain captive, though it is not known how many of them may have died.
The freed girls, the first to be released as a result of government action, are in the custody of the Department of State Services, Nigeria's secret intelligence agency, according to presidential spokesman Garba Shehu.
Their release was negotiated between the government and Boko Haram in talks brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, he said. Negotiations will continue for the release of the other students, he said.
A military officer familiar with the talks said four detained Boko Haram leaders were released Wednesday night in Banki, a town on the northeast border with Cameroon. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press on the matter. The girls were flown by helicopter to Maiduguri, the northeastern capital of Borno state and birthplace of Boko Haram, he said.
Congratulations to President Buhari, the Red Cross and the Swedish Diplomats involved. None of this could have been accomplished under Buhari's predecessor. It gives us hope that more girls may yet be saved, although, I'm quite sure, none are anywhere close to the same girls they were two years ago.
There is, unfortunately, no indication in this report whether the negotiators were dealing with Abubakar Shekeau's group or Abu Musab al-Barnawi's group.
"We are extremely delighted and grateful," the Bring Back Our Girls movement said on Facebook. The group, which has campaigned within Nigeria and internationally for the release of the students, said it awaits the names of the released girls.
"We thank the federal government and, like Oliver Twist, we ask for more," said Prof. Hauwa Biu, a women's rights activist in Maiduguri.
Young girls known as Chibok Ambassadors carry placards bearing the names of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, during a demonstration, in Abuja, Nigeria in 2015. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)
Negotiations last year failed when Boko Haram demanded a ransom of $5.2 billion for the girls' freedom, according to a recently published authorized biography of President Muhammadu Buhari by American historian John Paden. It was not clear if any money changed hands in this swap.
The abduction of 276 schoolgirls in April 2014 and the government's failure to quickly free them has caused international outrage and brought Boko Haram, Nigeria's home-grown Islamic extremist group, to the world's attention. Dozens of the girls escaped on their own, but most remain missing.
In May, one of the girls, Amina Ali Nkeki, escaped on her own. Shortly after her release Nkeki told her family that some of the kidnapped girls died of illness and that others, like her, have been married to fighters and are pregnant or already have babies, her mother told the press.
Since then Nkeki has been in the custody of the secret service where she is receiving medical care and trauma counselling, according to the government. Buhari's government has been criticized for keeping her isolated. The Bring Back Our Girls group and Human Rights Watch have asked whether Nkeki now is a detainee of the government.