Nigeria, May 31 – Nigeria’s military said Friday it had released 58 women and children held in connection with the Islamist insurgency in the country’s northeast under a peace gesture announced 10 days ago.
The youngest of the children released in Borno state told journalists at a ceremony announcing the move that he was nine years old. Twenty women and children were released in Borno, while 38 others in neighbouring Yobe state.
“We’re releasing six women and 14 young men to the Borno State government as directed by the defence headquarters,” Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, spokesman for the military in Borno told reporters.
In Yobe, Lieutenant Eli Lazarus announced the release of 17 women and 21 children.
“We hope the release will serve the purpose for which it was intended,” he told reporters.
Nigeria has defended the detention of children in connection with the insurgency, saying those held were directly involved in ways such as acting as lookouts and running errands.
Its military has come under heavy criticism in its fight against Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, including allegations of arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and extra-judicial killings.
The military launched a sweeping offensive in the northeast on May 15 in a bid to end the four-year-old insurgency by Boko Haram.
It announced on May 21 it would release women and children held in connection with the insurgency as part of a peace gesture.
The move came after Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed in a recent video that the group was holding women and children hostage in retaliation for wives and children of its members detained by the military.
Meanwhile, the military also said Friday it had arrested 56 more Islamist insurgents as part of an ongoing offensive in the country’s restive northeast, but provided few other details on the operation.
A military statement said they were arrested in various locations but did not specify where or when. It added that weapons seized included homemade bombs.
“A total of 56 identified insurgents were apprehended with the help of military police dogs,” it said.
Mobile phone service has been cut in much of the northeast since an offensive was launched on May 15 and access to remote areas has been restricted, making it impossible to verify claims from the military and the Islamists.
The military has declined to provide total numbers of those arrested or killed since the offensive began.
The number of arrests mentioned in various military statements has amounted to around 200.
In a video obtained by AFP on Tuesday, the leader of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, said soldiers have retreated in the offensives and rejected military statements about the success of the operation.
The military has dismissed his claims as propaganda and argued that the insurgents are in disarray.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states considered Boko Haram strongholds on May 14, prompting the offensive.
Boko Haram has waged its insurgency since 2009, with an estimated 3,600 lives lost, including killings by the security forces.