The Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram released dozens of girls kidnapped from a secondary school in Dapchi, northern Nigeria, on Wednesday on the condition that their parents keep them from going back to school, and marry them off instead.
The Nigerian government insists that they did not offer ransom or benefit Boko Haram in any way for the release of the girls. Estimates on the number of girls released vary from 76 to 91, but almost all local news sources agree that the group does not account for the 110 total girls kidnapped from the Government Girls Technical School in Yobe state last month.
Nigeria’s Premium Times reports that 76 of the 110 girls are accounted for. Vanguard, citing government officials, places the number at 91 girls, but cites Sahara Reports as reporting the return of 105 girls.
Vanguard reported, citing local sources, that the return of the girls caused some alarm, as locals “scampered into the bush as the terror group appeared in the area, first dropping off one the girls in a nearby village and then driving into the center of Dapchi town to drop off the rest of the girls.”
Authorities have not confirmed whether the girls who have yet to return are alive. Vanguard cites sources who say at least five of those abducted are dead.
Nigerian military officials told reporters that several Boko Haram terrorists were also arrested in the aftermath of the swap.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters that the girls were released “unconditionally” early Wednesday and refuted the 105 number. The release, he emphasized “did not cost the government anything,” according to Vanguard.
Mohammed added, however, that the government “observed” some “operation pause” of attacks on Boko Haram because, “for the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls, hence a non-violent approach was the preferred option.”
Mohammed appeared to indicate that the Boko Haram terrorists were cordial. “The girls were personally brought back by the insurgents. I shook hands with two of them, very young men but well armed,” Mohammed said. “They warned us against sending girls to school, arguing they should be married.”
Britain’s Sky News reports that the girls returned to their families with a note reading, “this is a warning to you all … don’t you ever put your daughters in school again.”
Boko Haram’s name roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language. Boko Haram terrorists regularly abduct women to be used as slave wives and child soldiers and use young girls as suicide bombers.
Boko Haram raided the Dapchi school in February, triggering a wave of panic and misinformation in Yobe state. The Nigerian government initially denied that the terrorists had abducted any of the girls, arguing that those missing were likely hiding in the nearby brush and had not yet come out for fear that the terrorists had overrun all of Dapchi. The government corrected the report, instead claiming that the girls had been rescued. Neither were true.
Anguished parents assaulted Yobe state Governor Ibrahim Gaidam when he arrived in the town the next day, stoning his vehicle and demanding an explanation for why law enforcement had failed to prevent the attack.
Outraged escalated following the revelation that Boko Haram attacked the school a week after the Nigerian military withdrew from the region, leaving the school vulnerable to attack.
“The attack occurred barely a week after the military withdrew the soldiers from there,” the governor, Gaidam, told reporters. “Before then, Dapchi has been peaceful, there was never such incident. But just a week after they withdrew the troops, Boko Haram came to attack the town.”
This week, Amnesty International published a report claiming that the Nigerian military received at least five calls before the attack warning that Boko Haram was moving terrorists towards the town and later failed to respond to emergency calls while the attack in Dapchi was underway.
“The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago. Despite being repeatedly told that Boko Haram fighters were heading to Dapchi, it appears that the police and military did nothing to avert the abduction,” Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director, said in a press release.
Nigerian officials have refuted the report, denying the “outright falsehood” that they received warnings before the attack and accusing Amnesty International of attempting to damage the relationship between the Nigerian government and the United States.