ABUJA (Reuters) - A group of 82 girls held captive for three years by Islamist militants met Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the capital Abuja on Sunday a day after they were released in exchange for several militant commanders, officials said.
“I cannot express in a few words how happy I am to welcome our dear girls back to freedom,” Buhari told the girls surrounding him in his residency, a presidency statement said.
“On behalf of all Nigerians, I will like to share my joy with you,” he told the girls, who were seen clapping, according to an official picture of the meeting.
The girls were among a group of 270 schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014 by the militant group Boko Haram, which has waged an eight-year-old insurgency to create an Islamist caliphate, killing thousands and forcing more than two million from their homes.
The government secured the release with mediation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. A military source said three Boko Haram commanders had been freed in an exchange, but declined to give further details.
Photographs released by the ICRC showed a line of girls wearing vests emblazoned with the charity’s logo waiting to board a military helicopter.
The military source said the girls had been flown from Banki near the border with Cameroon to Maiduguri and then Abuja, where they first got a medical checkup at a police hospital before being driven in two buses to the presidential villa.
Their meeting with the president apparently took place before they were reunited with their parents and relatives.
In Chibok, the remote town in northeastern Nigeria where the girls were abducted from, families were nervously waiting for names of those freed to be published.
“Many of the parents of the girls are anxious about the identities of the girls,” said Maina Mohammed, uncle of one of the abducted girls. “‘Will my daughter be there?’ they keep asking today.”
Their release was a boost for Buhari, a former military ruler who made crushing Boko Haram a pillar of his election campaign in 2015. Buhari, 74, has made few public appearances since returning from Britain in March for medical treatment.
A thin-looking Buhari met the girls in the evening. Only state television and his official photographer were allowed to attend.
“Let me reassure Nigerians, especially relatives and friends of the remaining girls that the Federal Government will spare no effort to see that they and all other Nigerians who have been abducted safely regain their freedom,” Buhari said in the statement.
The girls, who wore headscarves, were driven through Abuja to the hospital in a military convoy. One had a bandaged arm and some could be seen laughing.
Although the kidnapping of the Chibok girls caught global attention, Boko Haram, which has pledged loyalty to Islamic State, has kidnapped thousands of adults and children.
The army has retaken much of the territory initially lost to Boko Haram, but large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.
Reporting by Felix Onuah, Afolabi Sotunde, Ola Lanre and Seun Sanni, Ulf Laessing and Abraham Terngu; Writing by Ulf Laessing; editing by Richard Lough