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Hundreds of Hostages, Mostly Women and Children, Are Rescued from Boko Haram Extremists in Nigeria

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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Hundreds of hostages, mostly children and women, who were held captive for months or years by Boko Haram extremists in northeastern Nigeria have been rescued from a forest enclave and handed over to authorities, the army said.

The 350 hostages had been held in the Sambisa Forest, a hideout for the extremist group which launched an insurgency in 2009, Maj. Gen. Ken Chigbu, a senior Nigerian army officer, said late Monday while presenting them to authorities in Borno, where the forest is.

The 209 children, 135 women and six men appeared exhausted in their worn-out clothes. Some of the girls had babies believed to have been born from forced marriages, as is often the case with female victims who are either raped or forced to marry the militants while in captivity.

One of the hostages had seven children and spoke of how she and others couldn’t escape because of their children.

“I always wanted to escape but couldn’t because of the children,” said Hajara Umara, who was rescued together with her children. “If they caught you trying to escape, they would torture you and imprison you indefinitely.”

The army said the hostages were rescued during a dayslong military operation in Sambisa Forest, which was once a bustling forest reserve that stretches along the border with Cameroon and Niger, but now serves as an enclave from where Boko Haram and its breakaway factions carry out attacks that also target people and security forces in neighboring countries.

The freed hostages were transported in trucks to the Borno state government house, where authorities will look after them until they go home.

Some extremists were killed during the rescue operation and their makeshift houses were destroyed, the army said.

Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown jihadi rebels, launched its insurgency in 2009 to establish Islamic Shariah law in the country. At least 35,000 people have been killed and 2.1 million people displaced as a result of the extremist violence, according to U.N. agencies in Nigeria.

At least 1,400 students have been taken from Nigerian schools since the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in the village of Chibok in Borno state shocked the world. In recent years, abductions have been concentrated in the country’s conflict-battered northwestern and central regions, where dozens of armed groups often target villagers and travelers for ransom.

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