LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — The United Nations has negotiated the release of 876 children detained at a Nigerian army barracks holding suspected collaborators of the Boko Haram Islamic extremist group, the U.N. Children’s Fund said Friday.
The agency fears more children are at least temporarily detained at the barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, according to Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa.
This is the first reported negotiated release of children detained by the military, though Nigeria’s army routinely reports how many minors are among the hundreds of detainees it frees after interrogations that it says establish they have no links to Boko Haram.
The 876 children had been living in areas held by Boko Haram and were detained when those areas were liberated, Fontaine said in a teleconference call with journalists from his base in Dakar, Senegal. He spoke after a visit to Maiduguri, the city that is the birthplace of Boko Haram and the home of the Nigerian army’s Giwa Barracks.
The Associated Press has documented the deaths of thousands of detainees at the barracks in recent years. Amnesty International has said 8,000 detainees died there between 2011 and 2015. This year, Amnesty called for the detention center’s closure, saying babies and children are among the many detainees dying from disease, hunger, dehydration and untreated gunshot wounds.
The London-based human rights group also says President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to fulfill election promises in 2015 to halt abuse of civilians by Nigerian security forces
Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig Gen. Rabe Abubakar has called Amnesty’s charges “a distraction,” insisting that “our duty is to protect lives, and that is what we have been doing.”
Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2.6 million from their homes in less than a decade.