ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s president on Friday welcomed more than 100 schoolgirls who were released by Boko Haram Wednesday after being kidnapped last month.
The girls, wearing hijabs, were served a meal and posed for a photograph with President Muhammadu Buhari, who promised his government would beef up security around vulnerable schools.
Buhari said the government negotiated with Boko Haram to try to protect the abducted students. He vowed to work for the release of others abducted by extremists.
Of the 111 schoolgirls abducted from the Government Girls’ Science Technical College in Dapchi on Feb. 19, 105 have been released. One girl remains a prisoner of Boko Haram because she is Christian and refused to convert to Islam. Five others are unaccounted for and are presumed to have died in a stampede when the girls tried to run away from their captors.
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Buhari said that in future schools would have better protection.
“The security services have since been directed to put in place further measures around all schools vulnerable to attacks to ensure the safety of our pupils, students and teachers and school workers,” he said. “I have tasked all the security agencies to work to ensure that we do not witness any recurrence of these incidents.”
Boko Haram extremists returned the girls on Wednesday, dropping them off with a warning: “Don’t ever put your daughters in school again.” Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. The group is waging a violent campaign in northeastern Nigeria to impose Shariah law and is against western education, especially for girls.
The Nigerian government denies that it paid a ransom or made a prisoner swap in exchange for the Dapchi girls’ freedom.
The kidnappings from the Dapchi school are the latest mass abduction and are thought to have been carried out by a Boko Haram splinter aligned with the Islamic State group that has criticized the main Boko Haram organization for targeting civilians and has focused instead on military and Western targets.
The Dapchi students were released following “painstaking, backchannel dialogue with their abductors,” said Director-General of State Services, Lawal Daura.
“The insurgents’ only condition was their demands for cessation of hostilities and temporary ceasefire to enable them to return the girls at the point they picked,” said Daura, who was involved in the negotiations. He said talks are continuing for the release of those who are still missing.
The president also met with two additional primary school pupils, an 11- and 13-year-old, Daura said, who were not among those kidnapped on Feb. 19 from Dapchi. The girls were not all kept at one place, he said, complicating the situation.
He said there are also talks to try to end the violence caused by the extremist’s campaign, but it is complicated because Boko Haram has broken into at least two different groups.
The schoolgirls who were released have been taken to a medical facility and are being helped to readjust mentally and physically, he said. Four of the abducted had broken limbs and all of them had skin infections of some kind, he said.
Daura suggested that Nigeria’s president should work for the release of all people who have been abducted in Nigeria’s northeast and to improve the safety of schools in vulnerable locations and to expand dialogue.
Buhari’s government has repeatedly claimed victory over Boko Haram in recent months but the extremists continue to carry out deadly suicide bombings in the north, often using young women who have been abducted and indoctrinated.
The Dapchi mass abduction caused a fresh round of outrage, especially about over the lack of protection of schools in a region where Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of people over nearly a decade.
The abductions in Dapchi have evoked painful memories of the tragedy in Chibok, where 276 girls were kidnapped from their boarding school. Nearly four years later, about 100 of them have never returned home. Many had been forced to marry their captors and had children fathered by them.
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.