ENUGU, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's military said Tuesday that the West African nation would release some of the prisoners it has taken in the country's fight against Islamic extremists — including all the women now held in custody.
The surprise statement from the Defense Ministry, while lacking specifics about how many would be released and when, represents a clear concession by the Nigerian government to the insurgents it is fighting in a military offensive in the nation's restive northeast. The leader of the Islamic extremist network Boko Haram, the main group now fighting the government, repeatedly has mentioned security agencies arresting members' women and children.
In the statement, Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said those released would be turned over to state governors for "further rehabilitation." It also mentioned a presidential panel now exploring a possible amnesty deal for insurgents.
"The measure, which is in line with presidential magnanimity to enhance peace efforts in the country, will result in freedom for suspects including all women under custody," the statement read.
The statement, like the others issued by the military since President Goodluck Jonathan declared emergency rule May 14, offered no specifics. Reuben Abati, a presidential spokesman, also could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, has been waging a campaign of shootings and bombings since 2010. In recent weeks, the violence has gotten more intense as Nigeria's military says the group now uses anti-aircraft guns against the government.
The military's statement could offer a small branch for negotiations, as Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau repeatedly has called for the release of all the group's imprisoned followers — including women and children. However, Shekau also has said Nigeria must adopt strict Islamic law, something that would be unpalatable to many in this multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
Under the president's state of emergency directive, soldiers have ultimate control over security matters in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. Over the last week, witnesses and Associated Press journalists have seen convoys of soldiers in trucks and buses moving through the region, as well as trucks carrying armored personnel carriers. Jet fighters also have been seen flying low over Yola, the capital of Adamawa state.
However, journalists have not been able to access the remote areas that Nigeria's military claims it has waged firefights against Islamic extremists. At least 35 suspected extremist fighters have been killed in the fighting, according to military statements and a security officials who spoke to the AP. The military says it has arrested at least 205 suspected extremists, but it remains unclear where many were arrested and where all are being held now.
This new military campaign comes on top of a previous massive deployment of soldiers and police to the region. That deployment failed to stop violence by Islamic extremists, who have killed more than 1,600 people since 2010, according to an AP count. It also has seen soldiers arrest, torture and even kill civilians, while Jonathan himself acknowledged extremists have taken over villages and town in the region.
As the violence continues, some 2,400 people have fled the region for the neighboring nation of Niger, according to a statement Tuesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross described those fleeing as mostly Nigeriens citizens who "are completely destitute."
Nigeria's National Assembly also offered Jonathan legislative approval to the statement of emergency Tuesday, though the versions passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate must now be reconciled. House members ordered their measure include a demand that the government provide compensation for those affected by terrorist attacks.
Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .