Officials announced Thursday that 21 of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in April 2014 had been released to the Nigerian government.
The announcement comes more than two years after the girls were first captured by the militant organization. Since then, many have made their way home after escaping their captors or have been directly liberated by Nigerian forces. This is believed to be the largest group released by Boko Haram since the girls were initially captured.
Nearly 200 of the kidnapped girls, however, are still missing. But the release of so many through negotiation provides a glimmer of hope for the victims' families.
In a series of tweets, presidential spokesman Mallam Garba Shehu confirmed the girls' release.
"The release of the girls ... is an outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government," said Mr. Shehu. "The negotiations will continue."
The identity of the 21 girls released has not yet been made public.
In September, the Nigerian government sought help from the United Nations for negotiation with the group in response to Boko Haram's expressed willingness to release the girls in exchange for captured leaders of the terrorist organization.
A few sources initially said that there had been no release of detained militants to secure the release. However, the Associated Press announced in a recent tweet that four captured Boko Haram fighters had, in fact, been exchanged for the girls.
Boko Haram has made a reputation as one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, though it was largely ignored by the West until the kidnapping of the Chibok girls caught international attention, spurring headlines and the viral hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Since then, the group has split, with the main arm renaming itself ISWAP and declaring its allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS. The portion of the original group that still calls itself Boko Haram still holds the Chibok girls, and is not affiliated with the Islamic State.
The large release may be a result of increasing willingness to negotiate as Boko Haram loses ground in the Sambisa forest, where the group is headquartered. The Nigerian military has been conducting numerous raids on their territory, rescuing several other Chibok girls in the process.
"We believe that in the coming weeks we shall recover the rest of the girls," Gov. Kashim Shettima told reporters in May. "The military is already moving into the forest."
The estimate of a few weeks has proved overly optimistic, with reports from the Nigerian military often overstating their success against the group. For example, the military has repeatedly declared that they have killed Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, only to have him show up alive and well in future propaganda videos. But progress has been made against the terrorist group, and the liberation of 21 girls is a big step toward the goal of bringing the rest of the Chibok girls back, as well as other captives of the organization.
"I can only weep, right now," Obiageli Ezekwesili, one of the leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, said in a tweet responding to the news. "You know that kind of cry that is a mix of multiple emotions. Lord. Some of OUR Girls ARE BACK!!!