Boko Haram has released most of a group of schoolgirls taken hostage in a mass abduction a month ago, government officials said on Wednesday. The 110 school pupils were kidnapped from the north-east town of Dapchi on February 19, in a case with echoes of the Chibok school abduction that sparked the global #bringbackourgirls social media campaign. Early on Wednesday morning, however, residents of Dapchi said that a convoy of Boko Haram gunmen returned to the town and dropped most of the hostages off. Nigeria's minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, later said that 91 had so far been accounted for. The girls' arrival brought grateful crowds onto the streets of the remote farming town, some of whom even cheered the masked Boko Haram gunmen as they drove through town waving their black Islamic flags. Bashir Manzo, who heads a parents' support group in Dapchi, told the AFP news agency: "The girls have been brought back. They were brought in nine vehicles and dropped outside the school at about 8am (7am GMT). "These girls were not accompanied by any security personnel. Their abductors brought them, dropped them outside the school and left, without talking to anyone." Authorities said 91 girls had been released Credit: Reuters News of the release prompted rejoicing across Nigeria, although there was widespread speculation that a ransom had been paid to secure the girls' freedom. The Nigerian government is widely reported to have paid £2 million in ransom cash for the release last year of 82 of the 276 kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls. Five Boko Haram prisoners were also freed as part of that exchange. One local source, who was familiar with previous negotiations to free Boko Haram hostages, told The Telegraph: "If these are the Dapchi girls, I think we can assume that a hell of a lot of money has been paid for them." He added that with elections due next year, President Muhammadu Buhari was under increasing pressure to get the girls back. "The only way to do that is by paying money. Since they were only kidnapped last month, I'm not sure there would have been time to free prisoners as well, which takes longer." Residents of Dapchi, who had posted a billboard of 110 passport photos of the missing girls outside their school, said they initially fled on Wednesday morning when they heard reports that a Boko Haram convoy was heading into town. Schoolgirls wait for the arrival of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari at the Goverment girls' science and technical college in Dapchi, Nigeria March 14, 2018 Credit: REUTERS Instead, the gunmen arrived without firing a shot and dropped the girls off from a convoy of vehicles, some at the school itself, others by the roadside. One witness in Dapchi told the Associated Press that fighters said to residents they had returned the girls "out of pity." They also claimed that the gunmen had warned them "don't ever put your daughters in school again". Boko Haram's name translates roughly as "Western education is forbidden". The mother of one of the abducted girls in Dapchi Credit: REUTERS However, other accounts of the girls’ return suggested an element of pre-planning with members of Nigerian security services. By coincidence, a group of Nigerian reporters were already in town at the time to cover a solidarity meeting between the parents of the kidnapped Dapchi girls and those from Chibok. Jonathan Gopep, a correspondent with Nigeria's Channels TV, said: "Thee parents of the abducted girls told me they were expecting the arrival of the abducted children. We were then told to wait on the outskirts of town by local security men. A signpost of the Government Girls Science and Technical College is pictured in Dapchi Credit: REUTERS "Then we saw a motorcade going in and we heard wild jubilation within town. They didn't want the press men to know actually who brought the girls in, or how they were brought in." “We did eventually speak to a small group of five or six of the girls – they said they hadn’t been mistreated or hurt.” Nigerian officials said the girls would be transferred into the custody of the state security service, who would take them to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, for debriefing about their ordeal. There were unconfirmed reports that five had died during the initial abduction, possibly as a result of suffocation after being packed en masse into overcrowded Boko Haram trucks. The father of one of the abducted girls in Dapchi Credit: REUTERS The return of the girls is a boost for President Buhari, whose security forces were facing heavy criticism for having failed to prevent the abduction in the first place. Critics, though, expressed surprise that the gunmen had apparently been able to roll into town unchallenged yet again. Some said the military had withdrawn from the town a few hours before, suggesting that some kind of pre-arranged deal was in place. "The question now is, how were the girls returned without the security men apprehending the captors?" wrote one Twitter user. "Was any ransom paid for their freedom? Is this a scam?"
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