82 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released after more than three years in captivity.
They are the largest group yet to be released after years of tense negotiations between the government and the terrorist group, a Nigerian government spokesman said.
The girls were among about 220 students abducted from a secondary school in the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014, sparking a global campaign #bringbackourgirls supported by then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, and a host of other celebrities.
A Boko Haram video shows the girls, wearing the full-length hijab and praying in an undisclosed rural location
Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose two daughters were among those kidnapped, said he was told of the release by the Bring Back Our Girls pressure group and an official in Maiduguri.
He added: ‘This is good news to us. We have been waiting for this day. We hope the remaining girls will soon be released.’
Bring Back Our Girls said it was awaiting an official statement but added: ‘Our hopes and expectations are high as we look forward to this news being true and confirmed.’
Boko Haram fighters stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in the remote town of Chibok on the evening of April 14, 2014 and kidnapped 276 girls.
Fifty-seven managed to escape in the hours that followed but the remaining 219 were held by the group.
21 Chibok girls were released in October (pictured) in a deal brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed in a video message that they had converted to Islam.
The kidnapping brought the insurgency to world attention, triggering global outrage that galvanised support across the globe.
21 Chibok girls were released in October in a deal brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross, while a handful of others have escaped or been rescued.
However, a large number of the girls are still missing.
‘The government will soon release an official statement,’ a government spokesman said.
Last month President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement that the government was ‘in constant touch through negotiations, through local intelligence to secure the release of the remaining girls and other abducted persons unharmed’.
The girls were taken from a school in Chibok in the remote northeastern Borno state where Boko Haram has waged an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state that has killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people.
Campaigners chant slogans during a protest last month calling on the government to rescue the remaining kidnapped girls
Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases have been neglected.
The militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million during their insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.
Despite the army saying the insurgency is on the run, large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants, and suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.
THE CHIBOK GIRLS: A TIMELINE
Snatched from school
- On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram gunmen seize 276 girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state. 57 manage to flee.
- Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claims responsibility in a video released on May 5, and vows to sell the girls as slave brides.
- A week later, a second video shows about 100 of the missing girls. Boko Haram says they have converted to Islam and will not be released unless militant fighters held in custody are freed.
- An international media campaign is launched, backed by US First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls fires up a social media storm.
- On May 17, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria vow to fight Boko Haram together, in what Cameroon President Paul Biya terms a ‘declaration of war’.
- The UN Security Council says the kidnappings ‘may amount to crimes against humanity’, as Britain, China, France, Israel and the US offer help.
- On May 26, Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff Alex Badeh says the girls have been located but warns a rescue operation would put their lives at risk.
‘Proof of life’
- On the eve of the abduction’s second anniversary, US news channel CNN reports that Boko Haram has sent a ‘proof of life’ video which shows 15 of the girls – the first concrete indication that at least some are still alive.
- On May 18, 2016 the Nigerian army confirms the first of the schoolgirls has been found.
- The 19-year-old, who later meets President Buhari, was discovered with a four-month-old baby and a man she described as her husband near Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest enclave.
- On October 13, 2016, Nigerian officials announce the release of 21 of the girls following talks between the government and Boko Haram brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross.