Most of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped from the town of Dapchi by Boko Haram last month were returned by the militants Wednesday following backchannel negotiations with the government, officials said.
The Nigerian government said Wednesday that 91 of the 110 schoolgirls who had been taken from the Government Girls Science and Technical College on Feb. 19 had been returned as of midday local time (7 a.m. ET). One schoolboy had also been released.
Information Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed said in a statement their release had been secured “through backchannel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country.” No ransom had been paid, he said.
The army had paused its operations in the surrounding area of northeast Nigeria to avoid casualties during the handover, he said. “The government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls, hence a non-violent approach was the preferred option,” he said.
The statement did not address the status of the girls who remain unaccounted for.
Residents of Dapchi told reporters the girls were returned in a convoy by the militants early Wednesday, dropping them off before quickly leaving the scene.
One Dapchi resident told the Associated Press that the Islamist militants said they had returned the girls out of pity, and warned them not to let the girls return to school.
Bashir Manzo, head of a parents’ support group in Dapchi, told AFP that the girls “were not accompanied by any security personnel.”
“We will get to know more details from the girls about their predicament while in captivity.”
Fellow Dapchi resident Umar Hassan told the Associated Press that many locals had fled and hidden on hearing the militants were returning, only to be surprised by the sight of the girls getting out of their vehicles.
Boko Haram has been fighting an insurgency for years to impose sharia law in the region, and has regularly targeted schools, which it sees as a source of forbidden western education.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had described the kidnappings, which echoed the mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014 in Chibok, as a “national disaster.” More than 100 of the kidnapped Chibok girls remain in captivity. Reports have claimed the Nigerian government paid a ransom for the release of some of the Chibok girls last year, although the government has denied this.
Wednesday’s release came just a day after Amnesty International released a report that accused the Nigerian military of failing to act on warnings of the raid on Dapchi. It alleged that at least five phone calls were made to the army and police on the day of the attack, warning them that the militants were coming, but that the authorities did nothing.
The Nigerian military has denied the allegations.
Cover image: Fatima Abdu, 14, Zahra Bukar, 13, Fatima Bukar, 13 and Yagana Mustapha, 15, four schoolgirls of Government Girls Technical College, who escaped from Boko Haram attack, sit at home of schoolmate at Dapchi town in northern Nigerian on February 28, 2018. (AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images)