KANO, Nigeria: Residents of the Nigerian town of Dapchi were hoping for the release of the last schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram, following encouraging indications from the authorities after the militants returned more than 100 youngsters they had seized.
Her released schoolmates said the girl, Leah Sharibu, is a Christian who remained in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.
“There is so much expectation in the town following the news that the last remaining girl will be released,” Kachalla Bukar, father of one of the schoolgirls recently freed, told AFP late Saturday by phone from the town in the northeastern state of Yobe.
“We were told she was on her way but she has not yet been brought,” said Kachalla, who is the spokesman of the abducted schoolgirls’ parents union.
The authorities had asked shopkeepers to close Saturday afternoon in anticipation of her arrival.
National police chief Ibrahim Idris told reporters Saturday in Maiduguri, capital of neighbouring Borno State, the girl “may be released today”.
Idris said he cancelled a visit to Dapchi to avoid any “security hitch” in the town before Leah’s arrival, without providing further details.
In all, 105 of the 111 schoolgirls abducted on February 19 from their boarding school in Dapchi were released on Wednesday, raising questions about possible ransom payments.
They were brought back by members of Boko Haram in nine trucks and dropped by the school.
According to witnesses contacted by AFP, the girls were held on an island on Lake Chad, which is a known stronghold for fighters loyal to Boko Haram factional leader Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi.
Five of the girls died in captivity, according to their colleagues.
On Saturday, soldiers deployed in Dapchi disappeared from the town’s checkpoints, raising hopes for Leah’s imminent release.
“We believe the news of the girl’s release is true because the body language of the security personnel, police and military, indicates the girl is on her way home,” said resident Tijjani Goni.
“The town is in high spirits and full of anticipation,” Goni said.
“The sudden withdrawal of soldiers from checkpoints is a clear sign the girl is coming,” said fellow Dapchi resident Sanda Masida.
President Muhammadu Buhari vowed on Twitter to do “everything in our power to bring Leah back safely”.
The Dapchi kidnapping revived painful memories in Nigeria of the April 2014 abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town also in the northeast, which caused global outrage.
While some of the Chibok girls have been freed in exchange for ransom and the release of top Boko Haram commanders, a total of 112 remain in captivity.
Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted schools giving a so-called Western education in the mainly-Muslim region as part of an insurgency that has killed at least 20,000 people and displaced more than 2.6 million since 2009.
While a 2015 offensive launched by Buhari successfully reclaimed swathes of territory back from the jihadists in Nigeria, the group still stages deadly attacks on both military targets and civilians.