ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's president said he will meet Sunday with 82 Chibok schoolgirls freed this weekend after being kidnapped three years ago by Boko Haram extremists, while the International Committee of the Red Cross released an image of the girls boarding a helicopter to safety.
President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement that he will receive the girls in the capital, Abuja.
The president said the schoolgirls were freed in exchange for detained suspected extremists in the largest negotiated release so far of the nearly 300 girls whose mass abduction in 2014 highlighted the threat of Nigeria's homegrown extremist fighters who are linked to the Islamic State group.
A first group of 21 girls were released in October as Nigeria announced it had begun negotiations with the extremist group. Before Saturday's release, 195 of the girls had been captive. Now 113 of the girls remain unaccounted for.
The ICRC, which along with the Swiss government has mediated months of negotiations between Nigeria's government and Boko Haram, tweeted what might be the first public image of the freed schoolgirls on Sunday. The photo showed a line of young women wearing shirts with the ICRC logo waiting to board a helicopter.
The ICRC said it had acted as a neutral intermediary to transport the freed girls into Nigerian government custody.
Long-suffering family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names and their "hopes and expectations are high."
The April 2014 abduction by Boko Haram brought the extremist group's rampage in northern Nigeria to world attention and began years of heartbreak for the families of the missing schoolgirls.
Some relatives did not live to see their daughters released. Many of the captive girls, most of them Christians, were forced to marry their captors and give birth to children in remote forest hideouts without knowing if they would see their parents again. It is feared that other girls were strapped with explosives and sent on missions as suicide bombers.
A Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation said the freed girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.
Boko Haram remains active in that area. On Friday, the United States and Britain issued warnings that the extremist group was actively planning to kidnap foreigners in an area of Borno state "along the Kumshe-Banki axis."
The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years.
"This is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming back again," Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign told Sky TV. "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."
At the initial release of girls in October, the government said the release of another 83 would be coming soon. But at the three-year anniversary of the kidnapping in April, the government said 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.