There were strong indications on Thursday that the Federal Government freed some top Boko Haram commanders for the 21 Chibok girls, who were released by the insurgents at Banki, a border town between Nigeria and Cameroon.
The released girls were among the over 200 schoolgirls, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists from the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, on April 14, 2014.
Most of the girls wept profusely when Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo met them on Thursday at the Abuja headquarters of the Department of State Services after the girls’ arrival in the Federal Capital Territory.
The 21 girls were released after 913 days in captivity.
A security source said five Boko Haram commanders were released in exchange for the 21 Chibok girls.
The source stated, “Five top commanders of the Boko Haram were traded for the released Chibok girls.
“Those released are not among those earlier released by the military in the North-East on October 1, 2016. These ones are confirmed Boko Haram commanders, who have been in the custody of the DSS.”
The source, who spoke to The PUNCH on Thursday, said the 21 girls were discovered by troops of the 21 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, which supervises the military units in Banki, Borno State, while they were filing out of the forest.
“I think it was a planned operation which involved the DSS. The released Boko Haram commanders were not in the custody of the military,” the source added.
The source explained that the insurgents released the girls and left them to wander into an area where they could be sighted by people and security personnel in the area.
“The girls were released in the forest at Banki. Obviously, the abductors took them close to where they could be sighted and gave them direction and left them,” he stated.
It was learnt that the Nigerian Air Force Mi 17 Hercules helicopters were deployed in the area to airlift them out of the operational area to freedom.
The helicopter “has capacity to airlift 15 people without difficulty.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Government denied reports that it released some top terrorists to secure the release of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, issued the disclaimer while responding to reporters’ questions during a press conference in Abuja on Thursday.
He said the Federal Government remained prepared to do everything within its powers to get the remaining girls out of captivity, stressing that “it is not true that there was a swap.”
“Whatever it takes to get the Boko Haram situation under control, we will do it. Dialogues, military operation, anything; there are still small girls under captivity. Mr. President wants to speak to the leadership (of the sect) who has credibility,” the minister said.
However, a hooded member of the Abubakar Shekau-led faction of the sect, who appeared in a video it posted on the internet on Thursday, painted a slightly different picture.
The sect member, who spoke in Hausa, said the only condition it gave for the release of the girls was for the Federal Government to release its members, who were being detained in Maiduguri, Lagos, Abuja and other Nigerian cities.
The armed Boko Haram member, who appeared with dozens of the girls in the background, accused the Federal Government of lying to the world about the mass abduction for the two years the girls had spent in captivity.
“We want you to tell the Federal Government to leave our brothers. Unless our brothers are released, these girls (pointing to the girls in the background) will not be released.
“We are asking the parents to tell the Federal Government to release our brothers, if not we will never release these girls you are seeing,” he said.
The unnamed sect member, who was dressed in military fatigues and had his face covered, claimed that government never knew the girls’ location but kept using the media to deceive the world about securing their release.
In another breath, he said air raids by the Nigerian military led to the deaths of a substantial number of the girls.
He described the condition of some of the surviving girls as pathetic.
According to him, some of them have broken limbs while some are still being treated for injuries suffered during military bombardment.
The sect member announced that about 40 of the girls had been married off, but did not, however, say to whom.
He said, “Our message is first to the parents of the Chibok girls, some of your children are with us. About 40 of them have been given out in marriage. So many of them have gone to be with Allah because they were killed by the bombs from the aircraft of infidels; we will show you the video. Some were injured, some have broken limbs some are still being treated.”
He appealed to sect members, whom he claimed were in detention centres in Lagos, Maiduguri, Abuja and elsewhere in Nigeria to remain patient and prayerful, saying “by Allah’s grace, we will get you out.”
The terrorist called out one of the girls, who gave her name as Maida Yakubu, and asked her a few questions to establish her identity. He then asked her to make a direct appeal to parents on behalf of the others.
Yakubu, who spoke in Hausa and the local Chibok dialect, said, “My parents be patient and plead with the Federal Government to release their brothers so that they can release us.”
She then switched to her local dialect, where she could be heard calling “airplanes and bombs” intermittently.
The sect member then warned President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian Military not to attempt to release the girls by force because they may not get them alive.
Mohammed explained that the girls were released at about 5.30am on Thursday before they were flown to Kaduna from the location of their release.
He stated, “This is the most glaring manifestation to date of the unwavering commitment of Mr. President to secure the safe release of the girls and reunite them with their families.
“It is also a result of the round-the-clock efforts by the administration to put a closure to the sad issue of the kidnap of the girls.
“Ahead of their arrival, we have assembled a team of medical doctors, psychologists, social
workers, trauma experts, etc to properly examine the girls, especially because they have been in captivity for so long.
“They will also be adequately debriefed. We have the list of the 21 girls but we are now contacting their parents as part of the necessary verification exercise. As soon as that is concluded, we will release the names to the public.”
The minister added that the government received a credible lead which prompted the President to give the green light to the DSS to pursue it.
He said this was done in collaboration with a friendly European country (Switzerland) and a renowned international humanitarian organisation (Red Cross) with the support of the military.
Released girls to be tested for HIV, others
Doctors are to conduct medical tests on the 21 Chibok girls for any sexually transmitted disease like the HIV/AID, a security source told The PUNCH in Abuja on Thursday.
He said the girls, who were camped at the national headquarters of the DSS, were being held in order to ascertain their state of health before being released to their parents.
One of our correspondents, who visited the headquarters, was told that there was a directive from “above” not to allow journalists to have contact with the girls.
The source said, “They have lived with criminals, who thrive in drugs and all sorts of other things that are peculiar to criminals.
“These are innocent girls, who didn’t prepare for what happened to them. We will guide them, check them and also find out their state of health.”
We’ll continue to secure Nigerians –Buhari
Also, Buhari on Thursday assured Nigerians that his administration would continue to protect them wherever they were.
Buhari made the promise in an interview with journalists at the Presidential Wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, shortly before he left the country for a three-day official visit to Germany.
Reacting to the news of the release of the 21 Chibok girls, Buhari said, “Well, I am very pleased about it (the girls’ release).
“I expect you to get through to the Minister of Information and Culture.
“I believe he will be duly briefed by the Vice-President so that he will give you the details. I have just been briefed about it.
“To Nigerians all over, it is our responsibility and we will continue to secure them wherever they are.”
The Senior Special Assistant to the Vice-President, Laolu Akande, later released a statement indicating that the government was assembling medical experts that would attend to the released girls.
“The Federal Government is now gathering medical and other support and care in Abuja for the just released 21 Chibok girls,” he said.
Meanwhile, there was muted celebration at the sit-out of the BringBackOurGirls on Thursday following the release of the 21 Chibok girls.
The BBOG members were full of praises for the Federal Government, but were quick to urge it to hasten the rescue of the remaining 197 girls still in the Boko Haram captivity.
The Chairman, Chibok Community in Abuja, Tsambido Abana, expressed appreciation to the Federal Government and the BBOG group for campaigning for the release of the girls, who had been in captivity for 913 days.
Abana said, “We really thank God, but we are still waiting for the other 197. We don’t know the system they are going to adopt; whether they will allow us to meet them with the parents to identify them.
“We are happy, we thank God. We thank you all.”
Also, Rebecca Ishaku, one of the Chibok girls, who escaped during the April 2014 abduction, said she dreamt about her colleagues in captivity daily, adding that she wept for joy when she heard about the release of the 21 girls.
Speaking at the BBOG sit-out in Abuja on Thursday, Ishaku said she had almost lost hope of ever seeing her friends again, commending the BBOG for not giving up on the campaign for the rescue of the schoolgirls.
“When I heard about the release of my friends by the Boko Haram, I was so happy; tears of joy fell from my eyes. I was thinking that it may not happen; Since I escaped, every day I think about them, I prayed for them and today; God helped me, my classmates are back,” Ishaku said.
Recalling how she escaped abduction, Ishaku said she simply prayed for divine assistance, adding that she was afraid of being with the terrorists, having heard and seen the terrible things they did.
She said, “It was God that helped me. I had an operation around that time, so I said I was not going to follow these people. I said, ‘oh God, if you know I am going to disappoint you, please help me to escape’, and I was able to jump from the truck and escaped.”
Esther Yakubu, a parent of one of the abducted girls, described the girls’ release as a positive development and commended Buhari for his efforts.
“We thank the President for his efforts and we want the government not to relent, but to press harder for the rescue or release of others in the Boko Haram captivity,” Yakubu said.
I participated in negotiations to release Chibok girls –Senator
A member of the National Assembly, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Thursday that the negotiation for the release of the school girls started in 2014.
The Senator, who claimed to be part of the talks, said the DSS and the Army were part of the deal.
He said, “There were several meetings held in Sudan, Swiss Embassy, Ben and Geneva in Switzerland since 2014. It is a product of three years of intensive negotiations.
“The lead negotiator is Mustapha Zanna, a lawyer. I was the person that contacted the Swiss Embassy and initiated the first meeting.
“I was the one that involved the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Geneva and connected them to Zanna, who spearheaded the negotiation.
“The ICRC started talks with the DSS , Army and Zanna since 2014.
“Zanna was the lawyer to the commissioner who was killed in the Ali modu Sherrif’s government in Borno State, over Boko Haram related issues. He is also the proprietor of Future Prowess School in Maiduguri.”
Our hope is renewed, says BBOG
In its reaction, the BBOG expressed delight over the release of the girls, saying its hope had been rekindled in the pledge made by the Federal Government to rescue all the abducted girls.
“We are extremely delighted and welcome the news of the release of 21 of our 218 #ChibokGirls, who have been in Boko Haram captivity for 913 days. Our hope is renewed that our Government will fulfil the pledge it made to rescue all our #ChibokGirls as well as every other abducted citizen of our country.
“Now, we can continue to make our demand for the rescue of the remaining 197 #ChibokGirls with greater expectation of their quick return,” the group said in a statement by Co-coordinators, Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu.
“We also thank the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss government and all negotiators involved in securing the release.”
Girls’ release silences doubters of Buhari’s sincerity –Shettima
Also, Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State on Thursday said the release of the 21 Chibok girls had silenced those he described as doubters of the sincerity of Buhari to the fight against insurgency.
Shettima, in a statement by his spokesman, Mallam Isa Gusau, on Thursday said, “If any Nigerian had doubts about the sincerity and commitment of President Muhammadu Buhari to the rescue of our precious daughters, abducted by Boko Haram insurgents at Government Secondary School, Chibok, on April 14, 2014, as well as his sincerity in rescuing all other victims and ending the Boko Haram insurgency, such doubts should be eliminated by the success of the negotiation that led to their release.
“This of course does not mean that the rescue efforts are over. I am certain that the recovery of our 21 precious daughters from insurgency only strengthens the resolve of the Buhari administration to continue to work tirelessly until all the girls and all Nigerians abducted are freed and until the Boko Haram insurgency is brought to an end to guarantee public safety.”
Saraki hails release of abducted girls
Senate President Bukola Saraki on Thursday commended Buhari, the Nigerian security agencies, the government of Switzerland and the international community for the combined efforts that led to the release of 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls.
In a statement by the Media Office of the Senate President on Thursday, Saraki said, “We join all Nigerians to rejoice on the return of our daughters. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of those who have returned, and those girls who remain in the hands of the terrorists. It is our hope that the release of more of the girls is imminent and that our nation remains vigilant in the face of the continued crisis in the North-East.
“The release of the 21 girls is a testament to the perseverance of our men and women in uniform, the Civilian Joint Task Force and a clear indication that this government has been relentless in securing their release.”
Girls’ release diversionary, Fayose tells FG
Ekiti State Governor, Mr Ayodele Fayose, however, described the celebration of the release of 21 Chibok girls by the Federal Government as diversionary.
He said it was a “tactic employed by the Federal Government to divert the attention of Nigerians away from the hunger and outrage generated by the crackdown on judges.”
Fayose spoke in Iyin-Ekiti, Irepodun/Ifelodun Local Government Area of the state on Thursday while inaugurating a block of four classrooms built for the Erelu Angela Adebayo Children’s Home by his wife, Feyisetan.
The governor announced the donation of N250,000 to purchase uniforms for the inmates in the orphanage and another N250,000 for food, while placing a curse on any official, who would divert the money.
Fayose added, “What they came out today to tell Nigerians that 21 abducted Chibok girls have been released by the Boko Haram group is diversionary. Nigerians have never had it so bad.
“People are very hungry. What they did today is just to divert attention from what they did last week by clamping judges and justices into detention. While no one is saying corruption should be condoned, but due process must be followed.
In her speech, the governor’s wife said it was an uncommon divine opportunity to be in charge of the state at this point in time.
Nigeria asked us to negotiate with Boko Haram –Swiss govt
The Swiss government on Thursday said its involvement in the deal to swap Boko Haram terrorists for the release of the 21 Chibok girls was at the instance of the Federal Government.
According to the United Kingdom’s International Business Times, Switzerland conducted the negotiations, which included the International Red Cross Committee between Nigeria and the terrorists leading to the release of the girls.
“At the request of the Nigerian government, Switzerland facilitated contacts between representatives of the Nigerian government and intermediaries of Boko Haram on the release of the Chibok girls,” a spokesman for the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, told IBTimes.
“Switzerland’s engagement in this operation was guided by the principles of neutrality and non-interference. The role that the Nigerian government has asked Switzerland to play is fulfilled.
“Switzerland welcomes the release of 21 Chibok Girls and calls for the liberation of all the remaining girls as soon as possible.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross also confirmed its participation in the negotiation to release the girls.
“Today we transferred 21 of the Chibok girls and handed them to the Nigerian government authorities, as a neutral intermediary.
“We cannot provide any further comment at this stage in the best interest of the girls concerned,” the ICRC stated on Thursday on its Twitter handle.
FG offers released Chibok girls scholarships, jobs
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo promised the 21 Chibok girls that the Federal Government would take care of their education or jobs.
A statement by his spokesman, Mr. Laolu Akande, quoted Osinbajo as making the promise while visiting the girls at the DSS Medical Centre, Abuja, where they were receiving medical attention on Thursday.
He also told them that the government had made provision for their accommodation, saying their parents were allowed to visit them.
He said, “You can’t immediately be taken out of here because we need to be sure that you are in very good health.
“I am sure you are going to be very well taken care of. We have provided very good accommodation for you where you will stay where you will sleep and your parents will come and meet you there also.
“We are also going to see to it that everything that you require going forward, perhaps your education, those who need to go back to school, those who need to find employment, we are going to make sure that we make all the provisions for you.
“The Federal Government is very committed. The President in particular, has asked me to tell you, how excited he is. When you were away, he kept saying that if it were his daughter, he wouldn’t even know what to do.”Punch