Scenes of joy as 21 Chibok girls freed from Boko Haram are reunited with families

Questions remain over how they were freed, and which faction of Boko Haram holds the remaining 200

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The Independent Online

These are the jubilant scenes as 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls were reunited with their parents, two and a half years after they were kidnapped by the Boko Haram militant group.

The girls were released on Thursday, in the first successful breakthrough for negotiations between the Nigerian government and the jihadist extremists that have been going on for months.

The delay in arranging for them to meet their families came because the government flew them out of the remote north-east to the capital, Abuja, for what some parents described as a press stunt. Most members of the girls’ families arrived on Sunday after long drives from Chibok to Abuja over potholed roads, slowed further by military checkpoints amid a constant threat of militant attack.

But their frustrations were momentarily forgotten when the parents embraced the girls for the first time since the April 2014 raid on a secondary school in Borno state and mass abduction that shocked the world.

One mother told reporters gathered to witness the scenes: “I never expected I will see my daughter again and I pray that those girls still left behind, that God will bring them out safely the way our own daughter came out alive.”

Some conflicting reports remain over the exact circumstances of the girls’ release. Publicly, the Nigerian authorities have denied any Boko Haram fighters were set free as part of the deal.

But two military officers speaking to the Associated Press, and a security source quoted by the BBC, have said the girls were exchanged for four detained Boko Haram commanders.

A Nigerian who negotiated previous failed attempts said a “handsome ransom”, some millions of dollars, was paid by the Swiss government on behalf of Nigerian authorities.

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One of the kidnapped girls celebrates with family members during a church service (AP)
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The girls were released and flown to Abuja, Nigeria's capital (AP)
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The families came from the remote northeastern town of Chibok, where nearly 300 girls were kidnapped on April 2014 in a mass abduction that shocked the world (AP)

There are inconsistencies too in Nigeria’s reports of which faction of Boko Haram released the girls.

Last year, the group renamed itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (Iswap), but in August it suffered a major split, with Isis naming Musab al-Barnawi its new leader in the region.

Some fighters remain loyal to the former leader, Abubakar Shekau, and his faction released a video showing some 50 of the girls - leading to the assumption that all the girls were under his control.

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Family members celebrate after being reunited with the kidnapped girls in Abuja, Nigeria (AP)
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Abana Muta and Hawa Abana look at photos of the freed twenty-one Chibok schoolgirls in a newspaper including their daughter Blessing Abana, in Nasarawa Nigeria (AP)
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Hawa Abana, mother of Blessing Abana, one among of the freed twenty-one Chibok schoolgirls smiles during an interview in Nasarawa, Nigeria (AP)

But speaking to the Reuters news agency, president’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the 21 had in fact come from Iswap, and that the Isis-affiliated splinter group in fact held another 83 Chibok girls.

“The faction said it is ready to negotiate if the government is willing to sit down with them,” Mr Shehu said.

Iswap said it was unable to negotiate the release of the rest of the girls, thought to number 114, because they are being held by the Shekau faction.

On the one hand, the news offers hope for the remaining 83 girls. Despite its affiliation to the bloody Isis regime in Syria and Iraq, Iswap has proven itself a more willing negotiator and has played down the importance of attacks on civilian targets in its rhetoric under al-Barnawi.

It is a concerning development for families of the other 114, however. Talks with the Shekau faction are understood to have repeatedly broken down, while his reign over the insurgency has corresponded with a particularly brutal spell in its history.

The 21 girls are getting medical attention and trauma counselling in a hospital, said Tsambido Abana, the Chibok community leader in Abuja. Some are emaciated from hunger, he said.

Nigeria's Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, said Thursday's release was "the first step" for the liberation of all the remaining girls.

"Already we are on phase two and we are already in discussions," he told journalists on Sunday.

"But of course you know these are very delicate negotiations, there are some promises we made also about the confidentiality of the entire exercise and we intend to keep them."

Muta Abana, the father of one of the released girls, has been living in Nasarawa state near Abuja. He said the girls' abduction has been politicised, complaining that “people’s children aren't money, people's children are not clothes you wear to campaign, people's children are their pride”.

And he expressed anxiety as many of the girls were reportedly forced to marry Boko Haram fighters. The Independent has previously reported on the stigma faced by former captives of the militant group, and particularly children fathered by its fighters.

“Some of them came back with babies, but think about it: are we going to kill the children?” Mr Abana said.

“We won't be able to kill the children because it would be as if we don't want the girls to come back. God knows why it happened. It’s God's will.”

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