Scores of Nigerian schoolgirls who were among more than 200 kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 have been released, multiple sources told AFP on Saturday, with unconfirmed reports that at least 80 have been freed.
“I can confirm they have been released,” said a senior government minister, who asked not to be identified, adding that an official statement would be released later.
A military and a civilian militia source in Banki, near the border with Cameroon, said “at least 80” girls were brought to the town late afternoon on Saturday.
“The girls are now lodged in the military barracks and will be flown to (the Borno state capital) Maiduguri tomorrow (Sunday),” said the military source.
The civilian militia member and a resident at the camp in Banki for those displaced by the Boko Haram conflict gave an identical account.
Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose two daughters were among those kidnapped, said he was told of the release by the Bring Back Our Girls pressure group and an official in Maiduguri.
He added: “This is good news to us. We have been waiting for this day. We hope the remaining girls will soon be released.”
Bring Back Our Girls said it was awaiting an official statement but added: “Our hopes and expectations are high as we look forward to this news being true and confirmed.”
Boko Haram fighters stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in the remote town of Chibok on the evening of April 14, 2014 and kidnapped 276 teenaged girls who were preparing to sit high school exams.
Fifty-seven managed to escape in the hours that followed but the remaining 219 were held by the group.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, whose fight to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has left at least 20,000 dead since 2009, claimed in a video message that they had converted to Islam.
The audacious kidnapping brought the insurgency to world attention, triggering global outrage that galvanised support from the former US first lady Michelle Obama and Hollywood stars.
Twenty-one girls were released in October last year after talks between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government.
Three others were also found. The first had a baby and was accompanied by a man she said was her husband but the military said was a Boko Haram suspect.
Boko Haram has previously said it would release the girls if militant fighters held in Nigerian government custody were freed.
It was not immediately clear whether a prisoner swap was involved in the latest round of releases.
At the time of the release of the 21, President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the government was hoping to secure the release of 83 others being held by a different Boko Haram faction.
Last month he said in a radio interview that there were ongoing negotiations involving “some foreign entities” to release the 195 girls still believed held.
He told BBC Hausa the ICRC and Swiss government “have not withdrawn their support in the negotiations”.
Other countries were also involved, he added, without elaborating.
The ICRC has not yet commented on the latest release.
Parents and supporters of the missing girls last month marked the three year anniversary of the abduction, describing the situation as an unending “nightmare”.
But they said previous releases had given them strength.
On Friday, Britain and the United States issued a security alert warning of a Boko Haram plot to kidnap foreigners in the Banki area, which led to the suspension of aid flights to the town Saturday.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war, seizing thousands of women and children, including the Chibok girls, and forcibly recruiting young men and boys into their ranks.
In a less publicised attack in November 2014, some 300 children were among about 500 people kidnapped from the town of Damasak, on the border with Niger, in the far north of Borno state.
Most are still missing.