Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls Thursday morning amid ongoing negotiations between the terrorist group and the Nigerian government. The release comes more than two years after the girls first made global headlines when they were abducted by Boko Haram along with more than 200 of their female classmates in northern Nigeria. At the time, their sudden and puzzling abduction sparked an international campaign known as “BringBackOurGirls.”
Their release was agreed upon as part of deal between the insurgents and the government, the president’s office said in a statement Thursday morning. The government said that no imprisoned militants were exchanged for the girls.
A statement from the president’s office said the release was “the outcome of negotiations between the administration and Boko Haram, brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government.”
The nearly two-dozen girls will join a small but growing number of the 276 who have managed to escape their captors. More than 50 are believed to have escaped shortly after they were kidnapped in April 2014, and in May 2016 another girl was found.
Hopes have dwindled that all of the girls will eventually be returned to their families, with fears that some may have been used to carry out suicide bombings. Boko Haram blamed airstrikes for killing some of the young female captives in a video statement released in August. The girls were between the ages of 16 and 18 when they were abducted.
News of the deal comes as an intensified military operation is underway in the Sambisa Forest, where many of the girls are believed to have been taken. It is one of Boko Haram’s few remaining strongholds. Over the last year and a half, Nigeria has escalated its military operation to defeat Boko Haram, which captured large swathes of the north over the past seven years and has since crossed into neighboring countries like Cameroon.
Facing ground degradation in much of its previously held territory, Boko Haram’s militants are increasingly forced to resort to guerrilla warfare–style tactics to maintain their hold on the region. A father of one of the Chibok schoolgirls died in September during an assault carried out by Boko Haram on a village in the area, the Associated Press reported. Several other parents have been killed in similar attacks on Chibok.
A humanitarian crisis is worsening in the northeastern part of the country as aid groups finally gain access to areas formerly held by Boko Haram. The area is experiencing prolonged food shortages, with 250,000 malnourished children. The International Rescue Committee estimates that 1 million people are on the brink of famine, with 65,000 already at that level.