Nigeria announced the release of 21 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram Islamist militant group more than two years ago in the northeastern village of Chibok.
“I welcome the release of 21 of our Chibok girls,” President Muhammadu Buhari said Thursday in a post on Twitter before leaving for Berlin, where he is due to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss security issues. Negotiations for their release were brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said on Twitter.
The mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in April 2014 caused an international outcry and led to the #BringBackOurGirls social-media campaign championed by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. Boko Haram has waged a insurgency since 2009 to impose its version of Islamic law in Africa’s most populous country. Its attacks have left tens of thousands of people dead and spilled into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.
“We trust that our government will continue to work to keep the safety, security and well-being of the other girls a high priority,” Oby Ezekwesili, a leader of the campaign, said in an e-mailed statement.
The release of the girls “demonstrated that Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, albeit through a mediator, have been able to broker successful negotiations,” Ryan Cummings, director of Cape Town-based security consultancy Signal Risk, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“This could set the foundation for a continuation of conciliatory initiatives for the remaining hostages and could even lay the groundwork for some form of cease-fire agreement between the government and the sect,” Cummings said.
There were reports the girls were exchanged for four Boko Haram militants, Cummings said, without mentioning the source of the information. Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters in Abuja, the capital, that there was “no swap involved in the negotiations.”
Only two schoolgirls had previously been rescued. The army said in May that one was among 97 hostages freed during a raid on three villages in northeastern Nigeria, where the militants are based. Another girl and her newborn baby were found near a forest in Borno state the same month.
Boko Haram’s capacity to carry out large-scale attacks has been limited since Buhari assumed office last year.
In August, the Nigerian government said leadership disputes within Boko Haram complicated efforts to return the girls.
“The fact that Boko Haram has engaged in negotiation may also be telling of the group’s position of power relative to that of the Nigerian government,” Cummings said.