Kano | 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.
Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram.
Declaring today’s release “significant”, Nigerian officials said the breakthrough would help the recovery of 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.”
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 and the Swiss government.
“Switzerland facilitated contacts between representatives of the Nigerian government and intermediaries of Boko Haram on the release of the Chibok girls,” confirmed Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger.
The girls were exchanged for four Boko Haram militants in Banki, a town in northeast Nigeria close to the Cameroon border, said local sources.
“The girls were brought to Kumshe, which is 15 kilometres from Banki where a military base is stationed, in ICRC vehicles,” said a local 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.
Information minister Mohammed denied that the 21 girls were exchanged for Boko Haram prisoners, saying “this is not a swap.”
“It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides,” he added.
In September, the Nigerian government had admitted it had come close to a swap last year, but that talks broke down.
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.