ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria is in talks to release the remaining captive Chibok girls, its president said on Thursday
, a day before the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by insurgents Boko Haram.
The kidnapping is one of the most infamous of Boko Haram’s insurgency, now in its eighth year and with little sign of an end. More than 20 girls were released in October in a deal brokered by the International Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued but 195 are believed to be still in captivity.
“(The government) is in constant touch through negotiations, through local intelligence to secure the release of the remaining girls and other abducted persons unharmed,” President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement.
“We have reached out to their captors, through local and international intermediaries, and we are ever ready to do everything within our means to ensure the safe release of all the girls,” he said.
Buhari’s government has repeatedly promised to secure the release of the Chibok girls, and in October the president said efforts would be “redoubled.”
At the time, the presidency also said Boko Haram was willing to negotiate the release of 83 more girls, though none have been let go so far, spurring criticism from campaign groups over the government’s handling of the talks.
Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case — triggering a worldwide social media campaign — Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected, say aid organizations.
The use of kidnapped children as suicide bombers by the insurgents of Boko Haram has surged this year, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.
The militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million during their insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.
Despite the army saying the insurgency is on the run, large parts of northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.
Illegal refineries destroyed
Nigeria’s military said on Thursday that it had destroyed 13 illegal refineries in the restive Niger Delta oil hub, in an operation in which two soldiers died in clashes with “sea robbers.”
Military authorities say there are hundreds of illegal refineries in the region, which process stolen crude from oil company pipelines.
The Nigerian government said last week that it plans to legalize illicit refineries as part of an attempt to bring peace to the production heartland of crude oil, but it is unclear when it will put the plan into action.
Major Abubakar Abdullahi, a military spokesman, said troops “discovered and destroyed 13 illegal refineries” on Wednesday while on patrol in the Iyalama Adama axis of Rivers state. The two soldiers were killed in the Ijawkiri general area, in Rivers state, he said.
Makeshift refineries, usually hidden in oil-soaked clearings, support tens of thousands of people locally.
Nigeria’s navy chief has said that 181 illegal refineries were destroyed last year, 748 suspects were arrested, and crude oil and diesel worth 420 billion naira ($1.3 billion) was confiscated. The military shut down around 50 bush refineries in the first few weeks of 2017.
Tensions remain in the Niger Delta where an uneasy peace is being kept as the government holds talks with local communities, including militants whose attacks cut Nigeria’s oil production by as much as a third last year.
Crude oil sales provide two-thirds of government revenue.
Africa’s largest economy fell into recession in 2016 for the first time in 25 years, largely due to low oil prices and the impact of militant attacks.