The jihadist group Boko Haram has released 21 of more than 200 girls held since April 2014 in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok. The Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped broker negotiations.
On Friday the Nigerian presidency said in a statement that the 21 girls were released after negotiations between Boko Haram, the ICRC and the Nigerian and Swiss governments.
In April 2014, 276 school girls were taken from their secondary school in Chibok in the northeastern Borno state, where the jihadists have waged a seven-year insurgency to try to set up an Islamic state. About 50 of the girls escaped in the initial melee but 219 were captured.
The Swiss foreign ministry welcomed Friday’s announcement and called for the remaining 200 girls to be set free “as soon as possible”.
Details surrounding their release and condition remain sketchy. The Nigerian government gave no details of the negotiations, saying only that the 21 girls were very tired and would first rest in the custody of the national security agency. They would then be handed over to Vice President Yemi Obinsajo, the statement said.
“At the request of the Nigerian government, Switzerland facilitated contacts between government representatives and emissaries from Boko Haram. The aim of these contacts was the release of the young Chibok girls. Switzerland’s engagement was motivated by humanitarian reasons,” Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told swissinfo.ch.
Nigeria’s Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, told reporters this was the “first step in what we believe will be the release of all the girls”.
He denied reports that the government had swapped Boko Haram fighters for their release and said he was not aware whether any ransom had been paid. He said a Nigerian army operation against Boko Haram would continue.
Local sources earlier told AFP that the girls had been exchanged for four Boko Haram militants in Banki, northeast Nigeria.
"The girls were brought to Kumshe, which is 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Banki where a military base is stationed, in ICRC vehicles," said a local source. "The four Boko Haram militants were brought to Banki from Maiduguri in a military helicopter from where they were driven to Kumshe in ICRC vehicles."
From Kumshe, the Chibok girls were reportedly taken by helicopter to Maiduguri, the capital of northeast Borno state.
"The 21 (Chibok) girls arrived (in) Banki around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) where they found a military helicopter waiting. They were immediately ushered into the helicopter and flown to Maiduguri," said another local source.
CNN published on its website a picture it said showed several of the freed girls, wearing veils and being escorted by soldiers in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.
Switzerland refused to comment on whether it had any further role to play concerning the 200 remaining girls still held.
“The role that the Nigerian government of Switzerland has been fulfilled,” said Eltschinger.
In the past days, the Nigerian military has been carrying out a large-scale offensive in the Sambisa forest, a stronghold of Boko Haram, which last year pledged loyalty to the Islamic State militant group.
Boko Haram controlled a swathe of land around the size of Belgium at the start of 2015, but Nigeria's army, aided by troops from neighbouring countries, has recaptured most of the territory. The group still stages suicide bombings in the northeast, as well as in neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.
Boko Haram published a video in August apparently showing recent footage of dozens of the kidnapped girls and said some had been killed in air strikes.
The militant group has kidnapped hundreds of men, women and children but the kidnapping of the Chibok girls brought it worldwide attention.
In September, the Nigerian government said that it had opened negotiations with Boko Haram to secure the release of the remaining girls but that the talks were derailed due to a split in the extremist group.