Nigeria's military brings first 275 children and women freed from Boko Haram to safety

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YOLA, Nigeria — Their faces were gaunt, their hair tinted orange, their stomachs distended, all signs of malnutrition. They looked ragged, lost, shattered. But the girls were alive and free.

They were among a group of 275 children and women rescued from Boko Haram extremists, the first to arrive at a refugee camp Saturday after a three-day journey to safety, brought by Nigeria's military.

They came from the Sambisa Forest, the last stronghold of the Islamic extremists, where the Nigerian military said it has rescued more than 677 girls and women and destroyed more than a dozen insurgent camps in the past week.

Two newborns were among the first arrivals.

"Boko Haram killed the father of this child," Lami Musa told The Associated Press, cradling a four-day-old girl with black curls glistening with sweat in the 104-degrees Fahrenheit (40-degrees Celsius) heat.

Tears came to her eyes when she was asked if she has other children: "Three of them. Boko Haram killed my husband and grabbed me. I have no idea where my other children are." She said she lost her family in an attack by the militants on her village of Lassa in December.

The baby was born the day before the group set off from the Sambisa for a refugee camp in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, crammed into the backs of rickety, open pick-up trucks.

On the trip's first day, one military vehicle escorting the group exploded a landmine, wounding two soldiers, according to a soldier traveling with them. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Soldiers on foot then swept the road ahead of the convoy, he said, so it took three days to travel potholed roads for the 300 kilometers (200 miles) southwest to Yola.

Musa, 27, could barely walk when they arrived, limping on feet swollen to massive size. She said couldn't nurse her unnamed baby, because her breasts have no milk.

She's among several dozen in the group taken first to the clinic at the refugee camp, set up in an unused boarding school.

There, 22 were dispatched immediately to a hospital in town. Dr. Mohammed Auwal said many were suffering from malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition.

As night crept in, the camp is lit by a generator that powered the clinic and a bulb in a tree under which the military handed over the females to the National Emergency Management Agency at a brief ceremony.

For nearly a year, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan had been promising to bring home all the people kidnapped by Boko Haram home — especially 219 schoolgirls abducted from their boarding school in the town of Chibok.

That mass kidnapping a year ago outraged many around the world. It still was not clear Saturday whether any of the students who have come to be called "the Chibok girls" are among the newly freed.

The military has spent days "processing" them and trying to identify them. Now they will get medical and psychological care to begin their rehabilitation, said Air Commodore Charles Otegbade, the emergency agency's director for search and rescue.

The women were exhausted, too traumatized to realize they were safe, or be questioned about their experiences under Boko Haram.

They lined up for tea, water and a stew of baobab leaves.

Some women shot at their rescuers and were killed, as Boko Haram used them as an armed human shield for its main fighting force.

Nigerian soldiers were shocked when women opened fire on troops who had come to rescue them in the village of Nbita last week, The Associated Press was told by a military intelligence officer and a soldier who were at the scene. The women killed seven soldiers and 12 of the women were killed, they said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Most of the rescued are traumatized, said army spokesman Col. Sani Usman.

Boko Haram had seized a large swath of northeast Nigeria last year, declaring it an Islamic caliphate. Nigerian troops ran away before their advance, complaining they were not given enough ammunition or food to fight, and leaving civilians with no defense against an uprising that killed as many as 10,000 people last year. Some 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes.

The tide turned in the past nine weeks with a new infusion of armory including helicopter gunships, and a coalition with troops from neighboring countries.

Jonathan on Thursday vowed to "hand over a Nigeria completely free of terrorist strongholds" when he cedes power on May 29.

He lost March 28 elections, in part because of the military failures against Boko Haram and his handling of the hostage situation. Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari won the election and has promised to wipe out Boko Haram.

Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a statement Friday night: "The assault on the forest is continuing from various fronts and efforts are concentrated on rescuing hostages of civilians and destroying all terrorist camps and facilities in the forest."


Associated Press writer Ibrahim Abdulaziz contributed to this report from Yola.

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