LAGOS: Boko Haram Islamists who kidnapped 110 schoolgirls in Dapchi, northeast Nigeria, just over a month ago have so far returned 104 of the students to the town, the government said on Wednesday.
Some of those released said the six girls still missing included five who died at the start of the kidnap and one Christian who the assailants said would be held until she converted to Islam.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, that apart from “104 Dapchi schoolgirls, one other girl and a boy were freed by insurgents in the early hours of Wednesday.”
He said all the 106 persons were freed “unconditionally, contrary to reports in a section of the media that ransom was paid and that some insurgents were swapped for the freed persons”.
The girls were later handed over to a four-member federal government, including the minister and immediately airlifted to Abuja aboard a military transport plane.
The parents of one of the schoolgirls, Kachalla Bukar, said Boko Haram militants shook hands and took pictures with them before leaving.
Another parent, Alhaji Deri, said the remote town in Yobe state was “crowded with people celebrating” as word spread of the return of the girls.
Fatima Gremah, 13, who was among those released, told reporters: “Boko Haram said we were lucky we were young and also Muslims.
“One of us who is a Christian has been left behind. They said they would keep her until she converted.
“If she converts, they will release her. She is the only one among us left behind.”
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said last week the government had “chosen negotiation” to secure the return of the Dapchi girls rather than use military force.
Mohammed had earlier said their release was the result of “back-channel efforts” with the help of “some friends of the country”, without elaborating.
Military operations in and around Dapchi had been suspended “to ensure free passage” of the girls and also to ensure “that lives were not lost”, he added.
Nigeria’s presidency said separately the girls were in the custody of the country’s intelligence agency, the Department of State Services.
‘Five died en route’
The Dapchi kidnapping on February 19 brought back painful memories of a similar abduction in Chibok in April 2014, when more than 200 girls were taken.
Alhaji Deri’s 16-year-old daughter Aisha said they were not mistreated during their time in captivity.
But she added: “When we were being taken away, five of us died on the way.
“They brought us back this morning, dropped us outside the motor park and said we should all go home and not go to the military because they will claim to have rescued us.”
Fatima Gremah and another girl, Amira Adamu Mohammed, 16, both also said they were not mistreated and were given food to cook.
Fatima indicated they were held on an island on Lake Chad, which is a known stronghold for fighters loyal to Boko Haram factional leader Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi.
“They just told us on Saturday to get onto boats. We spent three days on the water before coming to shore, then they put us in vehicles and said they were taking us back home.”
Parents earlier told AFP the girls were brought back to Dapchi in nine vehicles at about 8:00 am. Some of the students headed to their homes in surrounding villages.
Kidnapping as strategy
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war during its nearly nine-year insurgency which has claimed at least 20,000 lives and made more than two million others homeless.
The Islamic State (IS) group affiliate has not claimed responsibility for the abduction but given the location, Barnawi and his fighters have been blamed.
In August 2015, IS publicly backed Barnawi as leader of Boko Haram, or Islamic State West Africa Province, over Abubakar Shekau, whose supporters carried out the Chibok abduction.
Analysts have attributed a financial motive to the Dapchi kidnapping given government ransom payments made to Boko Haram to secure the release of some of the captives from Chibok.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International claimed that the military ignored repeated warnings about the movements of Boko Haram fighters before the kidnapping.
The military rejected the allegation, calling it an “outright falsehood”.
Amnesty’s Nigeria director Osai Ojigho said the abduction “must be the catalyst for the government to ensure adequate protection of all schools in the northeast so that this can never happen again”.
Similar claims about security failings were made about the hours leading up to the abduction of 219 mostly Christian girls from Chibok, in neighbouring Borno state.
That brought sustained worldwide attention on the conflict for the first time and triggered a global campaign for their release spearheaded by US former first lady Michelle Obama.
There was no similar campaign for the Dapchi girls.
Since May 2016, 107 Chibok girls have escaped, been found or been released as part of a government-brokered deal with the jihadists.