Nigeria starts mediated talks with violent Islamist sect Boko Haram

By Reuters Staff
March 16, 2012

(People watch as boy scouts carry the coffins of the victims of the Christmas day bombing at St Theresa Catholic Church Madalla, during a mass funeral for the victims, outside Nigeria's capital Abuja February 1, 2012. Islamist sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the bombing of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja, which killed 37 people and wounded 57, the deadliest of a series of a attacks on Christmas Day in 2011. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)

Nigeria’s government has in the last week held its first indirect peace talks with Islamist sect Boko Haram, meeting mediators to discuss a possible ceasefire, political and diplomatic sources have told Reuters.

Two people close to Boko Haram have been carrying messages back and forth between the sect’s self-proclaimed leader Abubakar Shekau and government officials, the sources, who asked not to be named, said.

It was not clear whether any mediators met with President Goodluck Jonathan himself. A presidency spokesman said he could not immediately comment.

Boko Haram has said it wants to impose sharia, or Islamic, law across a country split equally between Christians and Muslims. The group has killed hundreds this year in bomb and gun attacks, mostly in the majority Muslim north of Africa’s top oil producer.

“BH (Boko Haram) has mentioned a conditional ceasefire but it wants all its members released from prison. The government sees this as unacceptable but is willing to release foot soldiers,” a traditional leader and civil rights activist involved in the talks told Reuters, asking not to be named.

“It is the first time a ceasefire has been mentioned, so it is a massive positive, but given the lack of trust a resolution is still a way off,” he added.

Jonathan’s national security adviser, General Owoye Andrew Azazi, told Reuters in January that Nigeria was considering making contact with moderate members of the shadowy Boko Haram via “back channels”.

A source at the presidency confirmed that efforts are being made to reach out to the sect’s negotiators, but that direct talks had not yet begun. A well-respected Islamic cleric has been contacted to reach out to them, he said.

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