Nigeria exchanges prisoners for 82 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram

Boko Haram militants have released 82 schoolgirls out of a group of more than 200 whom they kidnapped from the northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014 in exchange for five prisoners, a government official said. The girls have arrived in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.

Girls have arrived in the capital, 3 years after their high-profile kidnapping by Boko Haram's insurgents

Chibok schoolgirls recently freed from Boko Haram captivity are seen just after their arrival in Abuja, Nigeria, on Sunday. (Olamikan Gbemiga/Associated Press)

​The 82 freed Chibok schoolgirls arrived in Nigeria's capital on Sunday to meet President Muhammadu Buhari as anxious families awaited an official list of names and looked forward to reuniting three years after the mass abduction.

They arrived at the Abuja airport and were met by Buhari's chief of staff, presidential adviser Femi Adesina said. The president was expected to meet with the schoolgirls at 4 p.m. local time.

The girls were freed Saturday in exchange for detained Boko Haram suspects, Buhari's office said in a statement.

A Nigerian government official says that five Boko Haram commanders have been released in exchange for the Chibok girls.

The official who confirmed the release spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to reporters on the matter.

This is the largest negotiated release so far of the nearly 300 girls whose abduction in 2014 highlighted the threat of Nigeria's homegrown extremists who are linked to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Before Saturday's release, 195 of the girls had been captive. Now 113 girls remain unaccounted for.

A first group of 21 girls were released in October as Nigeria announced it had begun negotiations with the extremist group. At the time, the government denied making an exchange for Boko Haram suspects or paying ransom.

The 82 freed Chibok schoolgirls arrived in Nigeria's capital on Sunday to meet President Muhammadu Buhari as anxious families awaited an official list of names and looked forward to reuniting three years after the mass abduction. (Olamikan Gbemiga/Associated Press)

The girls released in October have been reported to be in government care in Abuja for medical attention, trauma counselling and rehabilitation, according to the government. Human rights groups have criticized the decision to keep the girls in custody in Abuja, nearly 900 kilometres from Chibok.

The newly freed schoolgirls should be quickly released to their families and not be subjected to lengthy government detention, Amnesty International's Nigeria office said, adding that they don't deserve to be put through a "publicity stunt" and deserve privacy.

Two buses carrying the newly released Chibok girls turn under the bridge at the airport junction in Abuja Sunday. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which along with the Swiss government has mediated negotiations between Nigeria's government and Boko Haram, said the girls soon would meet with their families.

The ICRC also tweeted what might have been the first public image of the freed schoolgirls on Sunday, showing a line of young women wearing shirts with the ICRC logo waiting to board a helicopter.

The group said it had acted as a neutral intermediary to transport the girls into Nigerian custody.

Long-suffering family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names of the girls and their "hopes and expectations are high."

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign said Sunday it was happy that Nigeria's government had committed to rescuing the 113 remaining schoolgirls. "We urge the president and his government to earnestly pursue the release of all our Chibok girls and other abducted citizens of Nigeria," the group said in a statement.

The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years. 
This undated image taken from video shows an alleged Boko Haram soldier standing in front of a group of girls said to be among abducted Chibok schoolgirls held since April 2014. (Site Institute via Associated Press)

The mass abduction brought the extremist group's rampage in northern Nigeria to world attention and began years of heartbreak for the families of the missing schoolgirls.

Some relatives did not live to see their daughters released. Many of the captive girls, most of them Christians, were forced to marry their captors and give birth to children in remote forest hideouts without knowing if they would see their parents again.

It is feared that other girls were strapped with explosives and sent on missions as suicide bombers.

A Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation said the freed girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.  
While 82 schoolgirls held captive for three years by Boko Haram militants have been released as part of a prisoner exchange, more than 100 women are still missing. 2:02

Buhari late last year announced Boko Haram had been "crushed," but the group continues to carry out attacks in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries. Its insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes, with millions facing starvation.