Boko Haram extremists in northern Nigeria have released more than 80 schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 by the militant group in the town of Chibok, near Nigeria's borders with Chad and Niger.
Nigerian government officials confirmed the releases early Sunday. CNN quoted a government official close to the situation as saying 82 girls were under military protection in the northeastern town of Banki, near the border with Cameroon.
The girls were set to be transferred to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, where they will undergo medical testing before being reunited with their families.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari says he will meet with the girls Sunday in Abuja.
The girls gained their freedom following protracted negotiations between Boko Haram and government envoys. Buhari said the schoolgirls were freed in exchange for detained suspected extremists. Scores of other girls seized in the Chibok raid are still missing, however.
Authorities say 276 girls were kidnapped from a government-run girls secondary school in Chibok on April 14, 2014. Nearly 60 girls who escaped during the first hours said their abductors forced them from dormitories into trucks that headed toward the bush.
Days later, a widely distributed video purported to show about 100 of the missing girls. Boko Haram claimed the captives had converted to Islam and said they would be released only in exchange for militants held by the Nigerian government.
At the time, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau vowed to sell the girls as slave brides.
The abductions triggered an international outcry, including condemnation from the U.N. Security Council. Michelle Obama, who was then the U.S. first lady, co-launched a media campaign to try to gain the girls' release.
There was no sign of the Chibok schoolgirls for more than two years, until one girl — by then a mother with a young infant — turned up last May. Two other girls made their way to government-controlled areas later in the year, and a group of 21 captives was released in October.
However, Nigerian Defense Minister Manir Dan Ali told VOA's Hausa service last month that it might take years to find all of the Chibok girls. He spoke as grieving families marked the third anniversary of the girls' disappearance, and as government troops searched known Boko Haram hideouts in the Sambisa forest — a vast area extending into three states in Nigeria's northeast.
Boko Haram, whose declared aim is to create an Islamic state, has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million during its insurgency, now in its eighth year.
U.N. officials have stressed that the Chibok girls are not Boko Haram's only victims.
The militants have seized at least 2,000 other girls and boys since 2014. Many of those captives were used as cooks, sex slaves, fighters and even suicide bombers, according to Amnesty International.
Boko Haram has increased its use of children as suicide bombers in the Lake Chad region, where 27 such attacks were recorded during the first three months of this year, three times as many as during the same period in 2016, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.