Deputy of Venezuela’s Guaido arrested and dragged away by tow truck

FILE PHOTO: Juan Guaido (R), new President of the National Constituent Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan opposition party Popular Will (Partido Voluntad Popular), and lawmaker Edgar Zambrano of Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica), leave the congress after Guaido's swearing-in ceremony, in Caracas, Venezuela January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents detained opposition leader Juan Guaido’s congressional deputy on Wednesday, using a tow truck to drag his vehicle away with him inside, prompting the U.S. government to warn of “consequences” if he was not released.

The SEBIN intelligence agency seized Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaido heads, in the first arrest of a lawmaker since Guaido tried to spark a military uprising last week to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed on Tuesday to strip Zambrano and six other lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution. The opposition does not recognize the assembly’s decisions.

The Supreme Court had earlier accused those lawmakers of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and accused another three opposition legislators of the same crimes on Wednesday.

The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters, while the U.S. government this week threatened to sanction all its members.

The U.S. government’s Venezuelan embassy, now based in Washington, said Zambrano’s “arbitrary detention” was “illegal and inexcusable.”

“Maduro and his accomplices are those directly responsible for Zambrano’s security. If he is not immediately freed, there will be consequences,” the embassy said on Twitter.

An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized by the United States and other Western countries as the rightful head of state, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. Maduro decried the events as an attempted coup.

“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television.

“They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.

‘KIDNAPPED’

Zambrano said on Twitter at about 6.40 pm local time (2240 GMT) SEBIN agents had surrounded his vehicle outside the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in Caracas’ La Florida district.

“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said. It was not yet clear if Zambrano was already at the Helicoide.

Guaido said on Twitter: “The regime has kidnapped the first vice president.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by half over the past five years, forcing more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate.

The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April. Authorities have not tried to arrest him since then, but Maduro has said he will “face justice.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the U.S. government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber in 2017 for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the lawmakers’ parliamentary immunities, and immediately release Edgar Zambrano.”

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Uganda says kidnapped American tourist did not take armed guard

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

KAMPALA (Reuters) – An American woman who was kidnapped with her driver at Uganda’s most popular wildlife park by gunmen had failed to take an armed ranger as required by the park’s regulations, a spokesman for the country’s wildlife authority said on Thursday.

Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and Ugandan driver Jean Paul were on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park when four gunmen ambushed their vehicle on Tuesday evening, police said.

An elderly couple also at the scene were not taken and raised the alarm.

Various illegal groups from Somali militant Islamists to Congolese-based rebels sometimes operate in Uganda, but the kidnappers’ identity was not known.

“We have armed ranger guides, if you’re going out on a drive in the park you’re supposed to have one but these tourists went out on their own without a guard,” Bashir Hangi, spokesman for the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told Reuters.

“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out. They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive and then we would have availed them a guard but they didn’t do this.”

California-based Endecott and the couple entered Uganda on March 29 and flew the next day to the park in the country’s southwest, the spokesman added.

There was no immediate comment on the progress of the investigation by Ugandan authorities.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Japanese journalist apologizes, recounts days as hostage in Syria

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, bows during a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Jumpei Yasuda, a Japanese journalist held by militants in Syria for more than three years, said on Friday he told his captors to deafen him if they suspected he was eavesdropping on their conversations.

Yasuda, 44, said it was one of the darkest moments before his release last month, ending what he called 40 months of physical and psychological “hell”.

“I told them to burst my eardrums and destroy my ears if they don’t like to be heard so much,” the freelance journalist said at the first news conference since his return on Oct 25.

Wearing a black suit and dark blue necktie, and with his greying beard trimmed short, Yasuda bowed in front of reporters and rows of television cameras before taking questions.

Yasuda said he was fully accountable for his actions.

“I would like to offer my apology and express my gratitude to those who worked for my release, and who were worried about me,” he said in a somber voice.

“I am very sorry that my conduct has had the Japanese government involved in this matter,” Yasuda added.

He was captured almost immediately after entering Syria on foot from Turkey in June 2015 and moved from one detention facility to another routinely over the 40 months.

At one location, he was not allowed to make any noise — even the sound of breathing through his nose or cracking of his knuckles — making it virtually impossible for him to move.

“In their logic, my making noise seemed to mean I moved to eavesdrop on what’s going on. So, whenever I made noise, they started doing things like torture (other hostages) and turn off the light,” Yasuda said.

At one point, he didn’t eat for 20 days in an effort to avoid any movement. It left him thin and nauseated.

He later converted to Islam because it allowed him more freedom of movement.

“As a Muslim, you must pray five times a day. As I could move only twice a day during meal time, conversion to Islam meant five additional occasions for me to move,” he said.

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

RECKLESS OR COURAGEOUS?

It was not the first time Yasuda had been detained in the Middle East. He was held in Iraq in 2004 and criticized at home for drawing the government into negotiations for his release.

Yasuda’s latest release, which made front-page news in Japan, rekindled debate about reporting from war zones that some see as reckless adventure and others as courageous journalism.

“My own conduct caused trouble for the Japanese government as well as many people. It is only natural I take criticism,” Yasuda said.

However, he defended the need for on-the-ground reporting in conflict zones.

“States kill people in war. Information is absolutely necessary for people to decide if such an act is acceptable,” Yasuda said. “Information for that purpose should come not only from the states involved but from a third party as well.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Qatar and Turkey for their cooperation after Yasuda was released, but Japan’s government said it did not pay a ransom.

Japanese media have reported he was held hostage by the Nusra Front, but Yasuda said he was not told the identity of his captors and he had no idea what had triggered his release.

Asked if he would go back to war reporting, Yasuda said he didn’t know.

“I am thinking I should be good to my parents. So, I could be more cautious in the way I conduct my reporting from now on.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. envoy meets families of Japanese abducted by North Korea

A family member of a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents greets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty after their meeting in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to Japan on Tuesday met the families of people abducted by North Korea decades ago to train its spies, just a week before Japan’s prime minister is expected to raise the emotive topic at a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The issue is a top domestic priority for premier Shinzo Abe, whose support has been undermined by scandals over suspected cronyism and cover-ups.

But Japan worries it could take a back seat to nuclear and missile issues in a series of summits planned with North Korea.

North Korea admitted in 2002 it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train as spies, and five of them returned to Japan. Abe has said he will not rest until all 13 have come home, making the issue a keystone of his political career.

Sakie Yokota (R), mother of Megumi Yokota who was abducted by North Korea agents at age 13 in 1977, meets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Sakie Yokota (R), mother of Megumi Yokota who was abducted by North Korea agents at age 13 in 1977, meets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In an apparent nod to Japan’s concerns, U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty and his wife met abductees’ family members, such as Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was snatched from a beach as a teenager 40 years ago.

Trump, who met Yokota among other relatives of abductees when he visited Japan in November, has incorporated the story of Megumi into his attacks on Pyongyang.

“Even today, as we speak, we don’t know where they are, what life they are pursuing,” Yokota said. “We haven’t even seen one single photograph of them.

“The only thing we are asking for is to help our children who were kidnapped … captured on their way back from school, and forced upon ships and taken away to a land they did not know.”

Hagerty told them their plight had not been forgotten, pledging to convey their stories to Trump ahead of the summit.

“We’re deeply saddened by the misery these family members have endured,” he said after a meeting of roughly an hour at his residence in central Tokyo.

“I know that this issue is high on the list of priorities for both President Trump and Prime Minister Abe,” he told reporters.

Trump was the third president met by Yokota and the others. In the past, they have expressed frustration at how long their struggle has lasted, and appealed for action.

“That there has not been a result is very tough for us, who have suffered by not having any chance to meet our loved ones for such a long time,” said Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was taken in 1978, leaving behind two infants in a creche.

“We ask for your personal contribution to tell President Trump that he must demand that North Korea give back the Japanese victims.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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.

NO RANSOM

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)

Pakistani peace activist reported missing, police say

Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of Raza Mehmood Khan, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between Pakistan and India, during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan December 11, 2017.

By Syed Raza Hassan

Karachi, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani peace activist has been reported missing over the weekend from eastern city of Lahore, police and one of his friends said on Tuesday.

Raza Mehmood Khan, 40, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between arch-rivals Pakistan and India, hasn’t been heard from since he left home on Sunday, said Rahim-ul-Haq, a friend and an associate.

He said the group has offices in both countries.

Police official Shehzad Raza said Khan’s family reported he had been missing since Saturday. No one has been accused in the report, he said. “We’re investigating.”

Several social media activists critical of the army and the country’s extremists and militant groups have gone missing in Pakistan in recent months.

Four of them were released nearly a month after they disappeared early this year. Two of them – Ahmad Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed _ later alleged in interviews with BBC and their social media posts that Pakistani intelligence abducted and tortured them in custody.

Pakistan’s army has denied the accusations.

Haq said Khan spoke at a discussion on Saturday on the topic of extremism. “Everyone discussed their views and, of course, Raza was very critical,” he said.

He said that Raza’s recent Facebook posts were critical of Pakistani military, especially in view of a recent sit-in protest by hard-liners that paralyzed Islamabad for over two weeks.

The extremists won almost all of their demands, including resignation of a minister they accused of blasphemy, in an agreement brokered by the army.

(Writintg by Asif Shahzad, editing by Larry King)

Colombian nun kidnapped in Mali is being held by militants: police

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – A Colombian nun who was kidnapped more than two months ago in Mali is being held by the Macina Liberation Front Islamist militant group, Colombian national police said on Tuesday, citing intelligence reports.

Gloria Cecilia Narvaez was seized by armed men on Feb. 7 in Mali’s southern Karangasso region, where she had been working in a health center. Four people have been charged in her disappearance.

“Intelligence tells us that it is the Macina Liberation Front. We’ll have to wait for a statement from that group to know what they will demand,” General Fernando Murillo, the head of the national police’s anti-kidnapping division, told Reuters.

An international unit led by France is looking for the nun, Murillo said, but she may have been moved out of Mali by her captors, perhaps to neighboring Burkina Faso. The kidnappers have so far sent no proof of life or ransom demands, he added.

“We think she was taken by mistake – that she was not the target,” Murillo said in an interview. Neither Narvaez’s religious order nor her family has the funds to pay a ransom, he said.

The incident is the first time that Colombia, known as a kidnapping capital in the 1990s, has been involved in the search and rescue of one of its citizens in another country.

Malian prosecutors have declined to provide details about the four people charged in the case, but a security source has told Reuters they are connected to the Catholic parish from which Narvaez was abducted. Investigators previously said they suspected Islamist militants could be responsible.

Kidnapping has become a lucrative source of cash for groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Mourabitoun. The latter is suspected of kidnapping a French-Swiss aid worker from the northern city of Gao in December.

The Macina Liberation Front is composed of Fulanis – cattle herders and farmers from central Mali. Its figurehead, Amadou Koufa, is a fiery cleric whose sermons call on Fulanis to rebuild historic empires like Massina, which once stretched over the Mopti region.

Islamist militants, who seized northern Mali in 2012 before being driven back by French forces the following year, have regrouped and are increasingly conducting raids in southern and central Mali, areas previously deemed safe.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Dozens of Eritrean and Nigerian former Islamic State captives freed in Libya

FILE PHOTO: An Eritrean migrant touches a ring on her hand at a military building in Misrata, Libya, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan authorities released on Wednesday 28 Eritreans and seven Nigerians who were captured and enslaved by Islamic State in Sirte and had been held in detention since the jihadist group lost the city in December.

The group, all but two of whom are women and children, escaped from Sirte, a former Islamic State stronghold in central Libya, while forces from the nearby city of Misrata battled to oust the militants late last year.

Some of the women were on their way to Europe when Islamic State fighters kidnapped and held them as sex slaves.

After they escaped from Sirte, they were investigated for possible ties to the group and held for several months in a Misrata prison.

Reuters has documented how Islamic State used enslaved refugee women to reward its fighters in Libya. In stories published last year, the women recounted how the group forced them to convert to Islam and sold them as sex slaves.

In November, a Reuters reporter visited some of the captives at a military post in Misrata. Their new captors, the women said then, starved and humiliated them. At least one woman, a 16-year-old, was pregnant and in need of urgent care.

The Libyan attorney-general’s office announced that it had cleared the women of any wrongdoing in mid-February, but their release was delayed for several more weeks, with no explanation.

On Wednesday, they were received by staff from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Libyan Red Crescent, before being taken to a shelter for medical checks.

“I’m very happy, I can’t describe how I feel, but I am very happy, I can start a new life and see my family again,” one 14-year-old Eritrean girl told Reuters before leaving the prison with the rest of the group on a Red Crescent bus.

A UNHCR official said the entire group had scabies, but otherwise appeared to be in reasonable physical condition.

The agency expects to resettle the Eritreans as refugees.

“We will send them to a safe house where they can be treated if they need medical treatment, and receive assistance from us, and be protected,” said Samer Haddadin, head of the UNHCR’s Libya mission.

“At the same time we will be processing them for refugee status determination … and we are doing this to make sure we can find a resettlement country for those who meet the resettlement criteria.”

The Nigerians, five women and two children, will be able to apply for asylum or be offered repatriation.

Dozens of women and children who escaped from Sirte or were picked up there by Libyan forces are still being held in Misrata. They include Libyans, Tunisians, and nationals from several sub-Saharan African countries. A group of Filipino nurses were freed in February.

Islamic State took control of Sirte in early 2015, turning the coastal city into its most important base outside Syria and Iraq and stationing hundreds of foreign fighters there. It took Misrata-led forces almost seven months to recapture the city.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Sahli in Misrata and Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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)