MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Eighty-three Chibok schoolgirls seized three years ago by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria have been released into military custody, authorities said late Saturday, a dramatic development in the mass abduction that brought the extremist group's rampage to world attention.
Family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names and "our hopes and expectations are high."
It was the second group release of Chibok schoolgirls. Nigeria's government in October announced that 21 girls had been freed after negotiations with Boko Haram, saying another group of 83 would be released "very soon." Before Saturday's release, 195 of the girls had remained captive.
"Huge numbers," the personal assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari, Bashir Ahmad, tweeted late Saturday.
A Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation said the 83 freed girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.
"The location of the girls kept changing since yesterday when the operation to rescue them commenced," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the announcement.
The number released could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press, and there was no official government announcement late Saturday.
On Friday, the United States and Britain issued warnings that Boko Haram was actively planning to kidnap foreigners in an area of Borno state "along the Kumshe-Banki axis." That's close to where the Chibok girls were reported to be found.
The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years.
The mass abduction shocked the world, sparking a global #Bringbackourgirls campaign supported by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities. It has put tremendous pressure on Nigeria's government to counter the extremist group, which has roamed large parts of the north and into neighboring countries.
Many of the kidnapped girls, most of whom were Christians, were forced to marry the Islamic extremists and became pregnant. Human rights advocates believe others could be among the young girls who have been used to carry out suicide bombing attacks.
The group representing the families of the girls said they were awaiting direct confirmation from the government.
"This is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming back again," said Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. "Their life in captivity has been one that depicts suffering, it depicts the fact that they have been starved, abused, and as we have seen before some of those girls have come back with children, and some of them have also come back with news of how they have been sexually abused."
The Nigerian government has denied that a ransom was paid in the October release and that it freed some detained Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the girls. The negotiations were mediated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At the three-year anniversary of the kidnapping in April, the government said the latest negotiations had "gone quite far" but faced challenges.
Buhari late last year announced Boko Haram had been "crushed," but the group continues to carry out attacks in northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. Its insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes, with millions facing starvation.
Larson reported from Dakar. Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria, contributed.