Islamist militants drove scores of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls back to where they were captured a month ago on Wednesday and abruptly set them free.
The captors gave no reason for their release, but Nigeria denied any ransom was paid. Several girls said some friends died in captivity and one was still being held.
The fighters from the Boko Haram group, some shouting ‘God is greatest’, drove the girls back into Dapchi in a line of trucks in the morning, dropped them off then left, witnesses told Reuters.
“I don’t know why they brought us back but they said we are children of Muslims,” one freed girl, Khadija Grema, told Reuters.
Aliyu Maina, reunited with his 13-year-old daughter, said the fighters “stopped and blocked the road, they didn’t talk to anybody, they didn’t greet anybody.”
“They said people should make space for people to recognise their children and I got my child.”
The kidnapping of 110 girls aged 11-19 on February 19 from Dapchi was the biggest mass abduction since Boko Haram took more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok in 2014 – a case that triggered international outrage.
Dapchi residents said more than 100 girls returned on Wednesday.
“One is still with them because she is a Christian,” said Grema. “About five are dead but it was not as if they killed them – it was because of the stress and trauma that made them tired and weak.”
“They didn’t harm us,” Grema added. “They were giving us food, good food. We didn’t have any problem.”
Muhammad Bursari said his niece Hadiza Muhammed, another freed girl, told him the remaining student was still in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.
Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, told Reuters 76 released girls were registered so far, while “others went straight home to their parents, but they will come for documentation later”.
“No ransom was paid to them to effect this release. The only condition they gave us is not to release the girls to the military but release them in Dapchi without the military present.”
Nigeria secured the release “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends,” Mohammed said in a separate statement.
“For the release to work, government had a clear understanding 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,” it said.
Boko Haram never explained why the girls were taken, but many Nigerians speculated the goal was ransom. Boko Haram received millions of euros for the release of some of the Chibok girls last year.
The abduction piled pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 2015 promising to crack down on the insurgency. He is expected to seek re-election next year.
Mohammed Dala said he had found his 12-year-old daughter in a crowd of girls in the centre of town.
“Some motors painted in military colour came with our girls,” he told Reuters. “The militants said we should not flee. They dropped the girls at the centre of town, near Ali’s tea shop. I found my daughter and left.”
Most of the girls were taken to a hospital guarded by the military, witnesses said.