Boko Haram Islamists who kidnapped 110 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria just over a month ago have returned 101 of the students to the town.
The schoolgirls were returned to Dapchi by Boko Haram early Wednesday morning following negotiations between the Nigerian government and the ISIS-affiliated militant group.
After the release, Boko Haram issued an ominous warning to the parents of the schoolgirls, warning: ‘Don’t ever put your daughters in school again.’
A witness in the town of Dapchi also said the fighters told residents they had returned the girls ‘out of pity’, but another source said five pupils had died and one was held back because she ‘refused to convert to Islam’.
Boko Haram translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local Hausa language.
Nigeria’s government says ‘no ransoms were paid’ in the release, which is still ‘ongoing’.
The country’s information minister says the girls were released ‘through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country, and it was unconditional.’
The Dapchi kidnapping on February 19 conjured painful memories of a similar abduction in Chibok in April 2014, when more than 200 girls were taken.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said: ‘The girls were released around 3am through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country.
‘The number of freed girls may increase because the girls were not handed over to anyone but dropped off in Dapchi.’
Yana Galang was visiting Dapchi in northeast Nigeria to offer condolences to parents whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram when people started to shout with excitement.
Her own daughter, Rifkatu, is still missing nearly four years after she and over 200 of her classmates were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from their school in Chibok about 170 miles away.
Galang, a mother of eight, said she had planned to tell the parents to be patient for their girls’ return as she had been.
‘When we asked why people were running, they told us that they were expecting their girls, that Boko Haram was bringing them home,’ she said.
‘Our visit became something else,’ added Galang, one of 30 Chibok parents who made the 11-hour trip to Dapchi the previous day to meet with the parents of the missing girls.
Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Chibok parents’ association whose niece was abducted at Chibok, described the scene of jubilation after the girls were reunited with their families.
‘Right in front of us, the militants brought the girls and dropped them and then left,’ he said.
He said some of the girls, aged between 11 and 19, looked ‘panicked’ initially and could barely respond to questions.
No official details were given about those who did not return, but Galang said she spoke with a number of the freed girls who told her that five of their schoolmates had died and one was held back because she refused to convert to Islam.
‘They said that three girls fell (out of the trucks) and into the river on their way to (the) Sambisa (forest hideout of Boko Haram). Two others died in the forest,’ said Galang.
A senior government source in Abuja and police in Yobe state also confirmed the girls’ return.
Bashir Manzo, who heads a parents’ support group in Dapchi, said: ‘The girls have been brought back.
‘They were brought in nine vehicles and dropped outside the school.
‘I have the list of the missing girls with me, so I am now heading to the school to take a roll call of the returned girls to determine if any of them is still missing.
‘These girls were not accompanied by any security personnel. Their abductors brought them, dropped them outside the school and left, without talking to anyone.
‘We will get to know more details from the girls about their predicament while in captivity.’
Alhaji Deri, whose daughter was among those kidnapped, supported Manzo’s account in a separate phone call, adding: ‘We are here in the school with the girls.’
Questions are likely to be raised about the circumstances of the release, particularly if Boko Haram fighters were able to travel in to and out of Dapchi unchallenged.
Yan St-Pierre, a counter-terrorism specialist with the Modern Security Consulting Group in Berlin, said the Dapchi girls’ release was not without precedent.
Earlier this year, a number of hostages, including university lecturers, were freed.
But he said the latest release was ‘casual enough to raise a lot of questions, especially about the payment’.
‘If they did pay, the Nigerian government likely paid a premium to accelerate the release in order to avoid another Chibok,’ he added.
The 2014 abduction brought Boko Haram – whose name translates from Hausa as ‘Western education is forbidden’ – worldwide notoriety at a time when it controlled swathes of territory in Nigeria’s northeast.
Boko Haram is increasingly using kidnapping as a means to fund their operations in Nigeria and the remote Lake Chad region.
The jihadist uprising has claimed some 20,000 lives and forced at least 2.6 million to flee their homes since 2009.