21 Chi­bok girls freed in swap, Nige­ria says

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Michelle Faul and Haruna Umar

MAIDUGURI, Nige­ria — Twenty-one of the Chi­bok school­girls kid­napped by Boko Haram more than two years ago were freed Thurs­day in a swap for de­tained lead­ers of the Is­lamic ex­trem­ist group — the first re­lease since nearly 300 girls were taken cap­tive in a case that pro­voked in­ter­na­tional out­rage.

The freed girls, some car­ry­ing ba­bies, were re­leased be­fore dawn and placed in the cus­tody of the Depart­ment of State Ser­vices, Nige­ria’s se­cret in­tel­li­gence agency.

In photos re­leased by the gov­ern­ment, the former cap­tives, most now young women, ap­peared gaunt and ex­hausted. The gov­ern­ment “wants the girls to have some rest,” said pres­i­den­tial spokesman Garba Shehu, adding that “all of them are very tired.”

Some 197 cap­tives re­main miss­ing, though some re­port­edly have died.

“We are ex­tremely de­lighted and grate­ful,” said the Bring Back Our Girls move­ment, which cam­paigned in Nige­ria and in­ter­na­tion­ally for the re­lease of the girls, most of whom were teenagers when they were seized in April 2014 from their school in the north­east­ern town of Chi­bok.

“We thank the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and, like Oliver Twist, we ask for more,” said Hauwa Biu, an ac­tivist in Maiduguri, the cap­i­tal of north­east­ern Borno state and the birth­place of Boko Haram.

The re­lease was ne­go­ti­ated be­tween the gov­ern­ment and Boko Haram, with the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross and the Swiss gov­ern­ment act­ing as in­ter­me­di­aries, Shehu said. He said Do­lapo Os­in­bajo, cen­ter, wife of Nige­rian Vice Pres­i­dent Yemi Os­in­bajo, com­forts one of the freed girls Thurs­day. ne­go­ti­a­tions would con­tinue for the re­lease of the other stu­dents.

Many of the girls freed Thurs­day were car­ry­ing ba­bies, said an aid worker who saw them in Maiduguri, where they were taken by he­li­copter af­ter their re­lease, be­fore be­ing flown to the cap­i­tal, Abuja. The gov­ern­ment said at least one child, a boy of about 20 months, was among those re­leased.

Many Boko Haram cap­tives re­cently freed by mil­i­tary ac­tion have been shunned by their com­mu­ni­ties be­cause they came home preg­nant or with ba­bies from the fight­ers.

Four de­tained Boko Haram lead­ers were re­leased Wed­nes­day night in Banki, a town on Nige­ria’s north­east bor­der with Cameroon, said a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer fa­mil­iar with the talks. Just hours later, the girls were re­leased in Banki, said the of­fi­cer, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to jour­nal­ists.

But In­for­ma­tion Min­is­ter Lai Mo­hammed in­sisted there was no swap, just “a re­lease, the prod­uct of painstak­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions and trust on both sides.”

At a news con­fer­ence, he re­fused to say how the girls were cho­sen. He said they would be “de­briefed” and placed in the care of doc­tors, psy­chol­o­gists, so­cial work­ers and trauma ex­perts, and their names would be re­leased af­ter their par­ents were in­formed.

In Abuja, Vice Pres­i­dent Yemi Os­in­bajo wel­comed the freed women, telling them: “The whole na­tion’s been wait­ing for you,” ac­cord­ing to a post on the of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count of the Nige­rian pres­i­dency. He said the girls’ par­ents were on their way to the Nige­rian cap­i­tal to be re­united with them.

In photos of the meet­ing re­leased by the gov­ern­ment, many of the women ap­peared mal­nour­ished. Oth­ers freed from Boko Haram cap­tiv­ity by mil­i­tary ac­tion have said the ex­trem­ists are run­ning out of food.

A Chi­bok com­mu­nity leader, Pogu Bitrus, said one par­ent had called to say the gov­ern­ment had con­tacted him to say his daugh­ter was freed.

“We just want all of our girls to come­home,” he said.

The ab­duc­tion of 276 school­girls from their school in Chi­bok and the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to quickly free them caused an in­ter­na­tional out­cry and brought Boko Haram, Nige­ria’s home-grown Is­lamic ex­trem­ist group, to the world’s at­ten­tion.

PHILIP OJISUA/GETTY-AFP

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