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Over 80 Chibok schoolgirls freed




MAIDUGURI,
Nigeria (AP) — Eighty-two Chibok schoolgirls seized three years ago by Boko
Haram have been freed in exchange for detained suspects with the extremist
group, Nigeria’s government announced early Sunday, in the largest release
negotiated yet in the battle to save nearly 300 girls whose mass abduction
exposed the mounting threat posed by the Islamic State-linked fighters.

The statement from the office of President
Muhammadu Buhari was the first confirmation that his government had made a swap
for the girls. After an initial release of 21 Chibok girls in October, the
government denied making an exchange or paying ransom.
The April 2014 abduction by Boko Haram
brought the extremist group’s rampage in northern Nigeria to world attention
and, for families of the schoolgirls, began years marked with heartbreak.
Some relatives did not live long enough to
see their daughters released. Many of the captive girls, most of them
Christians, were forced to marry their captors and give birth to children in
remote forest hideouts without ever knowing if they would see their parents
again. It is feared that other girls were strapped with explosives and sent on
missions as suicide bombers.
As word of the latest release emerged,
long-suffering family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names
and “our hopes and expectations are high.”
Before Saturday’s release, 195 of the girls
had remained captive. Now 113 of the girls remain unaccounted for.
The freed girls were expected to meet with
Buhari on Sunday in the capital, Abuja.
A Nigerian military official with direct
knowledge of the rescue operation said the freed girls were found near the town
of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.
“The location of the girls kept changing
since yesterday when the operation to rescue them commenced,” said the
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to
make the announcement.
Boko Haram remains active in that area. On
Friday, the United States and Britain issued warnings that the extremist group
was actively planning to kidnap foreigners in an area of Borno state
“along the Kumshe-Banki axis.”
The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in
2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years.
The mass abduction shocked the world,
sparking a global #Bringbackourgirls campaign supported by former U.S. first
lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities. It has put tremendous pressure on
Nigeria’s government to counter the extremist group, which has roamed large
parts of the north and into neighboring countries.
“This
is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming
back again,” Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign told Sky
TV. “Their life in captivity has been one that depicts suffering, it
depicts the fact that they have been starved, abused, and as we have seen
before some of those girls have come back with children, and some of them have
also come back with news of how they have been sexually abused.”
The
latest negotiations were again mediated by the Swiss government and the
International Committee of the Red Cross, Nigeria’s government said.
At the initial release of girls in October,
the government said the release of another 83 would be coming soon. But at the
three-year anniversary of the kidnapping in April, the government said
negotiations had “gone quite far” but faced challenges.
Buhari late last year announced Boko Haram
had been “crushed,” but the group continues to carry out attacks in
northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. Its insurgency has killed more than
20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes, with millions facing starvation.
___

Larson
reported from Dakar. Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria,
and Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria, contributed.
Credit: AP.

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