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21 Chibok girls freed: Timeline of events
01:26 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

More than 270 girls were abducted from a school in Chibok in 2014

Some escaped immediately, one was found earlier this year

CNN  — 

Conflicting information is emerging about what Boko Haram received in exchange for releasing 21 Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria this week after holding them for two years.

“A number of Boko Haram commanders” were freed as part of Thursday’s release of the girls, a source close to the negotiations between the Islamist militant group and the Nigerian government said on condition of anonymity.

This contrasts with what the Nigerian government has said, which is that the girls’ release was not a prisoner exchange.

Some of the released Chibok girls in Banki, Nigeria, near the Cameroon border.

“This was not a swap,” Nigerian Information Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed said Thursday. “It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides.”

A separate source, one with direct knowledge about the girls’ release, told CNN Thursday that no captive Boko Haram fighters were released in exchange for the girls.

The 21 that Boko Haram released Thursday were among the 276 girls and women, ages 16 to 18, that militants herded from bed in the middle of the night at a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014 – a kidnapping that spurred global outrage.

September: Chibok girls’ parents react to new Boko Haram video

As many as 57 girls escaped almost immediately in 2014, and one was found this spring. Just under 200 remain unaccounted for after their release.

This photo, obtained exclusively by CNN, shows some of the 21 girls who were released to the Nigerian military Thursday morning in Nigeria.

The 21 were freed before dawn Thursday in the northeastern Nigerian town of Banki, near the border with Cameroon, the first anonymous source said.

The Nigerian government did not release terms of the arrangement, but said that it came after negotiations brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government.

#BringBackOurGirls

Chibok is in northeastern Borno state, where Boko Haram is strongest. The militants were believed to have taken their captives to the dense Sambisa forest, a reputed Boko Haram stronghold.

The terror group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015, aims to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa’s most populous nation, which has a Christian-majority south and a Muslim-majority north.

August: Video of Chibok girls released; parents react

Since the group launched an uprising in the northeast in 2009, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and about 2 million people have been displaced, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Boko Haram also is blamed for attacks in neighboring countries.

The girls’ release comes amid an apparent split in the terror group, with ISIS introducing an alleged Boko Haram leader in the summer even as Boko Haram’s longtime chief maintained that he still was in charge.

The 2014 kidnapping prompted global figures such as Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai and US first lady Michelle Obama to support a #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media.

Series of videos showed captives this year

The students’ release also comes amid pressure from the girls’ families on the Nigerian government to secure their freedom from whomever still held them.

May: Chibok girl found after two years as Boko Haram captive

The pressure increased as Boko Haram, or groups claiming to represent it, issued videos over a period of months showing some of the kidnapped students, apparently to prove to the government that some were alive and to make demands, such as the release of captured Boko Haram fighters.