After Years in Captivity, Nigeria Welcomes Back Kidnapped Chibok Schoolgirls

Chibok girls
The 21 Chibok girls released by Boko Haram attend a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria, October 19. They were the first to be freed following talks between the government and the militant group. PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty

A group of 82 girls held captive for three years by Islamist militants arrived in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Sunday after they were released in exchange for several militant commanders, officials said.

"Welcome our girls, welcome our sisters, we are happy to have you back, we are very glad that you are back," said Abba Kyari, chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, as he greeted the girls at a police hospital.

They were among a group of 270 schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014 by the militant group Boko Haram, which has waged an eight-year insurgency to create an Islamist caliphate, killing thousands and forcing more than two million from their homes.

Nigeria secured the release with mediation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. A military source said three Boko Haram commanders had been freed in an exchange, but declined to give further details.

Photographs released by the ICRC showed a line of girls wearing vests emblazoned with the charity's logo waiting to board a military helicopter.

The military source said the girls had been flown from Banki near the border with Cameroon to Maiduguri and then Abuja, where they will shortly meet the president.

Their release will be a boost for Buhari, a former military ruler who made crushing the Boko Haram insurgency a major pillar of his election campaign in 2015. Buhari has made few public appearances since returning from Britain in March for medical treatment.

Anxious Wait

In Chibok, the remote town in northeastern Nigeria where the girls were abducted from, families were nervously waiting for names of those freed to be published.

"Many of the parents of the girls are anxious about the identities of the girls," said Maina Mohammed, uncle to one of the abducted girls. "'Will my daughter be there?' they keep asking today from us the relations."

The girls were driven through Abuja to the hospital in a military convoy. They will meet Buhari at the presidential villa. The girls wore headscarves; one had a bandaged arm and some could be seen laughing.

Although the kidnapping of the Chibok girls caught global attention, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children.

The army has retaken much of the territory initially lost to Boko Haram, but large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

Boko Haram, which has pledged loyalty to Islamic State, has kidnapped hundreds of men, women and children in its campaign to carve out a medieval Islamist caliphate.