KANO, Nigeria: Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday.
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo met with the freed girls in Abuja. “It’s a very exciting news for the whole country,” he said.
He said that the girls are “reasonably in good health considering the circumstances in which they have been held.”
His office also released the names of the girls. It showed that one of them was carrying a baby.
Local sources said the release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government. The girls, the sources said, were exchanged for four Boko Haram militants in Banki, a town in northeast Nigeria close to the Cameroon border.
“The girls were brought to Kumshe, which is 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Banki where a military base is stationed, in ICRC vehicles,” said the source.
“The four Boko Haram militants were brought to Banki from Maiduguri in a military helicopter from where they were driven to Kumshe in ICRC vehicles.”
From Kumshe the Chibok girls were flown by helicopter to Maiduguri, capital of northeast Borno state, said another local source.
The alleged swap was “bittersweet” said Ryan Cummings, director at intelligence firm Signal Risk. “Whatever is being given to Boko Haram in exchange for the girls would potentially be used against the Nigerian state again.”
Information minister Mohammed denied that the 21 girls were exchanged for Boko Haram prisoners, saying, “This is not a swap.” The Nigerian government had admitted in September that it had come close to a swap last year, but that talks broke down.
“It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides,” said Mohammed.
In a statement, the Nigerian presidency said the girls were freed after negotiations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government.
The Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger confirmed tht Switzerland “facilitated contacts between representatives of the Nigerian government and intermediaries of Boko Haram on the release of the Chibok girls.”
Declaring Thursday’s release “significant”, Nigerian officials said the breakthrough would help to recover the 197 girls who remain in captivity.
“It’s just a first step in what we believe will lead to the eventual release of all our girls,” Nigerian information minister Lai Mohammed said in Abuja.
“When you are fighting an insurgency, it’s a combination of carrot and stick,” Mohammed said. “The release of these girls does not mean the end to military operations. But it could mean a new phase in the conduct of the war against terror.”
The Chibok girls were abducted in April 2014, drawing global attention to the Boko Haram insurgency engulfing the area when US First Lady Michelle Obama joined the #BringBackOurGirls online movement.
Of the 276 girls initially seized, scores escaped in the hours after the kidnapping, while a 19-year-old was found with her four-month-old baby earlier this year.
Despite winning back swathes of territory from the jihadists, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had faced intense criticism for failing to recover the young captives, who became the defining symbol of Boko Haram’s brutal campaign to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the country.