Militants free scores of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls after month in captivity

Some of the newly-released Dapchi schoolgirls are pictured in Jumbam village, Yobe State, Nigeria March 21, 2018. REUTERS/REUTERS/Ola Lanre

By Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga

DAPCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Islamist militants freed scores of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls on Wednesday, driving them back into the town where they had been captured a month ago.

The captors gave no reason for their release, which triggered celebrations and tears, but the government denied that a ransom had been paid. Several of the girls said some of their friends had 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 the northeast town of Dapchi in a line of trucks in the morning and dropped them off before leaving, witnesses told Reuters. Some residents fled as the convoy rolled in.

“I don’t know why they brought us back but they said because we are children of Muslims,” one of the freed girls, Khadija Grema, told Reuters.

After the release, in the nearby village of Jumbam, some of the girls held each other and wept, huddling on the ground in beige hijabs as residents stood around them.

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 recognize their children and I got my child.”

Boko Haram has waged a insurgency for nine years in northeast Nigeria and neighboring states in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, more than 2 million displaced and thousands abducted.

A 2015 military campaign drove the group from most territory it controlled, but much of the area remains beyond government rule, and insurgents still stage attacks from strongholds near Lake Chad.

The kidnapping of 110 girls aged 11-19 on Feb. 19 from Dapchi was the biggest mass abduction since Boko Haram took more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014 – a case that triggered international outrage.

Dapchi residents said more than 100 girls had returned on Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Nigerian government was transporting the girls by bus to Maiduguri, one of the largest cities in the northeast and the hub for the fight against Boko Haram.

“One girl is still with them because she is a Christian,” said Grema, the freed student. “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, very good food. We didn’t have any problem.”

She described how, after the kidnapping, the girls were transported by car and canoe, moving through villages and along waterways to a safehouse.

Another girl who gave her name as Fatima said two of her friends were among those who died, trampled as they were being transported.

“They kept us in a big, covered house where no one could spot where we were, even by air we could not be seen,” said Fatima.

Muhammad Bursari said his niece Hadiza Muhammed, another of the freed girls, told him the remaining student was still in captivity because she had refused to convert to Islam.


Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, said in a statement 101 released girls had been registered so far.

“No ransom was paid to them to effect this release,” he told Reuters separately. The only condition they gave us is not to release (the girls) to the military but release them in the town of Dapchi without the military presence.”

Nigeria had secured the release “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” Mohammed said in the statement.

“For the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that 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 that 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 the girls in the center of town.

“Some motors painted in military color came with our girls,” he told Reuters. “They (the militants) … said we should not flee. They dropped the girls at the center of town, near Ali’s tea shop. I found my daughter and left.”

Most of the other girls were taken to a hospital guarded by the military, witnesses said.

(Reporting by Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga in Dapchi, Afolabi Sotunde and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi and Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Graff)

Nigerian air force kills 50 in air strike on refugee camp

Injured people are comforted at the site after a bombing attack of an internally displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria

By Lanre Ola

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s air force killed 50 people and injured 120 in an air strike on a refugee camp in the northeast on Tuesday, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said. The military said the strike had targeted Boko Haram.

MSF said the strike occurred in Rann in Borno state, the epicenter of the jihadist group’s seven-year-old bid to create an Islamic caliphate. Regional military commander General Lucky Irabor located it at Kala Balge, a district including Rann.

Irabor, who said it was too early to determine the cause of the mistake, told journalists an unknown number of civilians had been killed, adding that humanitarian workers from MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were injured.

“MSF teams have seen 120 wounded and 50 dead following the bombing,” said Charlotte Morris, a spokeswoman for the medical charity. “Our medical and surgical teams in Cameroon and Chad are ready to treat wounded patients. We are in close contact with our teams, who are in shock following the event.”

A spokeswoman for ICRC said six Nigerian Red Cross members were killed and 13 were wounded.

People walk at the site after a bombing attack of an internally displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria

People walk at the site after a bombing attack of an internally displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria January 17, 2017. MSF/Handout via Reuters

The insurgency has killed more than 15,000 people and forced two million to flee their homes, many of whom have moved to camps because it has been too dangerous to return home.

The air strike came amid an offensive against Boko Haram by Nigeria’s military over the last few weeks. President Muhammadu Buhari said last month a key camp in the jihadist group’s Sambisa forest base in Borno state had fallen.

A statement issued by the presidency said the air strike was a “regrettable operational mistake” that happened during the “final phase of mopping up insurgents in the northeast”.

Boko Haram has stepped up attacks in the last few weeks as the end of the rainy season has enabled its fighters to move more easily in the bush.

A video featuring an audio recording purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, which was posted on social media late on Monday, said the group was behind twin suicide bombings at a university earlier that day which killed two people and injured 17 others.

(Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Boko Haram frees 21 kidnapped Chibok girls

Members of the #BringBackOurGirls (#BBOG) campaign stand behind a banner with Number 218 during a sit-out in Abuja, Nigeria May 18, 2016, after receiving news that a Nigerian teenager kidnapped by Boko Haram from her school in Chibok more than two years ago has been rescued.

By Alexis Akwagyiram and Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) – Boko Haram has freed 21 of more than 200 girls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group in April 2014 in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, the government said on Thursday.

Around 270 girls were taken from their 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, killing thousands and displacing more than 2 million people.

Dozens escaped in the initial melee, but more than 200 girls are still missing. The kidnapping brought outrage worldwide and their plight was promoted by a Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

“The release of the girls … is the outcome of negotiations between the administration and Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government,” a presidency statement said. “The negotiations will continue.”

The presidency gave no details of the deal, 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. President Muhammadu Buhari will travel to Germany on Thursday.

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.

Authorities said in May one of the missing girls had been found and Buhari vowed to rescue the others.

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 neighboring countries, has recaptured most of the territory. The group still stages suicide bombings in the northeast, as well as in neighboring 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 the last few months Buhari has said his government was prepared to negotiate with Boko Haram over the release of the girls.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram, Felix Onuah and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Latest Boko Haram attack in Niger Forces thousands to flee

Nigerian refugees and other people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgence stand in queues after arriving in Nigeria, at Geidam, Nigeria

By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR (Reuters) – An estimated 50,000 people have fled Boko Haram attacks in southeast Niger since Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday, adding to a humanitarian crisis caused by the spread of violence in the region.

The Islamist group first took the town of Bosso near the Nigerian border on Friday in an attack in which 30 soldiers from Niger and two from Nigeria were killed. It was the deadliest assault in Niger by Boko Haram since April 2015.

A UNHCR statement said on Tuesday that civilians fleeing Bosso are mainly walking toward Toumour, about 30 km (18 miles) to the west. Some are continuing on to the town of Diffa and north toward Kabelawa, where a camp for the refugees is already near capacity with 10,000 people.

They are part of a growing crisis in the Diffa region near lake Chad, where Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger meet and where Boko Haram has conducted more than 30 attacks this year, according to the United Nations.

In May, the Niger government estimated that there were more than 240,000 displaced people in the region.

“The welfare of these people and others forced to flee the violence in Bosso is of great concern,” UNHCR said. “Insecurity and lack of access have long hampered humanitarian operations in parts of the Diffa region, though Bosso is the only area where we do not implement projects directly.”

Clashes have continued in Bosso in recent days as both sides seek to retain control of the town. Niger troops briefly regained control of Bosso on Saturday morning, according to the defense ministry, but the militants retook it on Sunday night, Bosso Mayor Mamadou Bako said.

Reuters was unable to independently verify who had control of the town on Tuesday.

Boko Haram has been trying to establish an Islamic state adhering to strict Sharia law in northeast Nigeria since 2009. About 2.1 million people have been displaced and thousands have been killed during the insurgency.

(Reporting By Nellie Peyton; Editing by Edward McAllister and Tom Heneghan)

Boko Haram Targets Civilians

A member of a civilian vigilante group holds a hunting rifle while a woman pumps water

KERAWA, Cameroon (Reuters) – Adama Simila wears a knife tied to his belt by a piece of rope, his only protection against Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist insurgents who have repeatedly targeted his home town in remote northern Cameroon.

While the threat once came from heavily armed, battle-hardened jihadists crossing from neighboring Nigeria, today Simila knows he is more likely to die at the hands of a teenage girl strapped with explosives.

“We’re here to look out for suicide bombers,” said the 31-year-old, a member of a local civilian defense force in the town of Kerawa.

After watching its influence spread during a six-year campaign that has killed around 15,000 people according to the U.S. military, Nigeria has now united with its neighbors to stamp out Boko Haram.

A regional offensive last year drove the insurgents from most of their traditional strongholds, denying them their dream of an Islamic emirate in northeastern Nigeria. An 8,700-strong regional force of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria is seeking to finish the job.

Now, increasingly on the back foot, Boko Haram is retaliating with a deadly guerrilla campaign against civilians, and ordinary people like Simila have become the last line of defense.

“I’m not scared. They are people, we are also people. We must die to live,” said Simila, who was at the Kerawa market in September when two girls detonated themselves, killing 19 people and injuring 143 others. A nearly identical bombing at the same market followed in January.

Outside Nigeria, Cameroon has been hardest hit by Boko Haram, which now operates out of bases in the Mandara Mountains, Sambisa Forest and Lake Chad — areas straddling the borders between Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger.

Since August 2014, the sect has carried out 336 attacks in Cameroon, according to the Cameroonian army, which has lost 57 of its own men while defending the north.

Of 34 recorded suicide bombings killing 174 people, 80 percent were carried out by girls and young women aged 14 to 24 years.

Girls abused as sex slaves by the group are psychologically damaged and therefore more vulnerable, the army says. Boko Haram also uses girls because they are thought less likely to arouse suspicion, although that may be changing now.

“The goal now is to stop Boko Haram incursions into villages, stop them from planting IEDs (home-made bombs), and stop suicide bombings,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Tetcha, a senior officer in the army’s operation against Boko Haram.

Cameroon has thrown vast resources into protecting the north.

In total nearly 10,000 of its troops are deployed against Boko Haram. The army’s Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR), comprised of its most professional, best equipped soldiers, patrols a high-risk 400-km (250-mile) stretch of the border with Nigeria.

The U.S. military backs them with equipment, training and intelligence gathered from American drones flown out of a base in the town of Garoua. A Reuters reporter saw a small American military camp inside another BIR base in nearby Maroua.

Still, the terrain is mountainous and Boko Haram has rigged many roads with explosives designed to kill soldiers. Army officers are convinced that some fighters from Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year, have been trained at IS camps in Libya.

Armed incursions by Boko Haram fighters have dropped. But the army does not have enough soldiers to deploy in every town in northern Cameroon, and suicide bombers strike regularly, often several times in a single week.

“The border is under control, but it’s still very porous,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Emile NlatĂ© EbalĂ©, head of operations and logistics for the BIR’s mission in the north.


Faced with such an asymmetrical threat, Cameroon’s army has turned to so-called vigilance committees for help.

As the blazing midday sun beat down on Kerawa, Bouba Ahmada walked along a dry, scrub-lined creek bed, an ancient flintlock musket slung around his neck.

“Here is Cameroon, over there is Nigeria,” he said, gesturing towards the abandoned homes just across the dusty expanse. “It’s empty. Only Boko Haram stays there.”

Made up of men and boys armed with machetes, home-made rifles or bows and arrows, these self-defense forces have the blessing of the local government.

They accompany the army on patrols and intelligence gathering missions, question travelers, and denounce to the military anyone deemed suspect.

Last week they intercepted two female suicide bombers and handed them over to the army before they were able to detonate.

“We are not 100 percent dependent on this information, but this information is crucial,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Tetcha, who is not only defending Cameroon but also a growing number of Nigerians.

Close to the border sits the U.N.-run Minawao camp, home to nearly 57,000 refugees who have fled Boko Haram in Nigeria.

“Everybody suffers in this place,” said James Zapania, a 24-year-old camp resident from Gwoza, Nigeria. “We’re not worried about Boko Haram coming here, we’re worried about food.”

Refugees like Zapania often receive a chilly welcome from suspicious local villagers, many of whom view them as collaborators or even underground Boko Haram fighters.

According to one Cameroonian officer, the army has removed a number of individuals from Minawao for “activities that were not in line with the behavior of a normal refugee”.

Suspicion is everywhere. And while Boko Haram infiltrators make up only a tiny portion of fleeing refugees, many, including the Cameroonian military, fear that desperation provides fertile ground for recruitment.

“We need to act quickly. There are young people with no work who could be vulnerable. When people are hungry, they are easily approached,” said Colonel Didier Badjeck, a Cameroonian military spokesman.

(Editing by Joe Bavier and Giles Elgood)