More than two years after their abduction, 21 of the missing Chibok schoolgirls have been released by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, a government spokesman said Thursday.
“The release of the girls, in a limited number is the outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government,” presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said in a statement. “The names of the released girls follows shortly.”
The successful negotiations mark the first major breakthrough since the Islamic militant group kidnapped 276 girls from a school in the small town of Chibok in Borno state on April 14, 2014. Some of the girls have managed to escape but, even with Thursday's release of 21, the fate of nearly 200 others remains unknown.
Some are believed to have been killed in the Nigerian military’s airstrikes on Boko Haram.
Shehu said the negotiations with Boko Haram will continue to secure the release of the remaining girls. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed the girls' release but he “cautioned Nigerians to be mindful of the fact that more than 30,000 fellow citizens were killed by terrorism,” Shehu said in a statement.
Nigeria's Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed provided more details at a press conference later Thursday. The girls were released safely to government officials Thursday morning by 5:30 a.m. local time at an undisclosed location and were transported to Kaduna in northwest Nigeria. The girls are being flown to the national capital Abuja, where they will be received by the vice president and "a team of medical doctors, psychologists, social workers, trauma experts" will examine them, Mohammed said.
"Especially because they have been in captivity for so long," the minister noted. "We are now contacting their parents as part of the necessary verification exercise.
Mohammed said the girls' negotiated release was not a prisoner swap with Boko Haram.
"Please note that this is not a swap. It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides," he said. "We see this as a credible first step in the eventual release of all the Chibok girls in captivity. It is also a major step in confidence building between us as a government and the Boko Haram leadership on the issue of the Chibok girls."
Elodie Schindler, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, confirmed to ABC News that the humanitarian group, "acting as a neutral intermediary," transferred 21 of the missing Chibok schoolgirls and handed them over to Nigerian authorities on Thursday. The group was not part of the Nigerian government's negotiations with Boko Haram and was only involved in the girls' transfer and transport. Schindler denied providing further comment or additional details.
Pogu Bitrus, a village elder in the Chibok community, told ABC News that the town received word of the girls’ release today and is awaiting their arrival.
The Chibok girls' plight prompted a global movement and social media campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which has been endorsed by international leaders such as first lady Michelle Obama and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Aisha Yesufu and Oby Ezekwesili of the #BringBackOurGirls movement issued a statement Thursday welcoming reports of the negotiated release of 21 girls.
"This wonderful development confirms what we have always known about the capacity of our government to rescue our Chibok girls," the statement read. "Following this development, we trust that our government will continue to work to keep the safety, security, and well-being of the other girls a high priority. We further urge the international community to continue to support our government’s effort to rescue all other abducted Nigerians, so that parents, the Chibok community, the nation, and the world can finally put an end to this nightmare once and for all."
Allen Manasseh, an activist from Chibok, told ABC News that the #BringBackOurGirls group is waiting for the girls to arrive in the capital Abuja.
In May, Nigerian troops and a vigilante group found one of the missing Chibok schoolgirls in the vast Sambisa Forest, which covers over 23,000 square miles in northeast Nigeria and is a stronghold of Boko Haram.
The teenager was identified by the army as Amina Ali. She was found with a 4-month-old baby, who authorities said is her daughter, and a man identified by the army as Mohammed Hayatu, who said he is her husband.
Hayutu was detained for questioning as a suspected Boko Haram militant. The three were examined by military medics and deemed stable. Amina was reunited with her mother, the army said.
Residents said the Chibok teen told her family that six of her classmates had died.
The Nigerian military’s failure to act on the girls’ kidnapping led in part to President Goodluck Jonathan’s electoral defeat to Buhari in March of last year. Since taking office, Buhari has made the war against Boko Haram a top priority, but families of the missing schoolgirls have grown frustrated as months have passed without their rescue.
Buhari has said corruption from previous administrations was largely to blame for the army’s inability to quickly defeat Boko Haram, which aims to overthrow the federal government and establish an Islamic state in West Africa.
In the past year, Buhari has replaced the military top brass and relocated the command center to Maiduguri in Borno state, the heartland of Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency that encompasses the town of Chibok.
ABC News’ Clark Bentson and James Bwala contributed to this report.