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Diplomacy

Nigeria confirms 'backroom' talks with Islamists

The Nigerian government has said it is holding "backroom" talks with members of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram. The move represents a shift away from a purely military response to the group's insurgency.

The spokesman for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday told journalists that talks were going on with some members of Boko Haram.

"The form of the dialog is that backroom channels are being used to reach across with the sole objective of understanding what exactly the grievances of these persons are, what exactly can be done to resolve the crises," Reuben Abati told reporters at the presidential villa in the capital, Abuja.

He said the government had reached out to the insurgents "in the overall best interest of ensuring peace and stability in Nigeria and the secuirty of life and property."

This is the first official goverment confirmation of back-channel talks after the information minister earlier indicated that some kind of contact with the group had been established.

Religious divide

Boko Haram is blamed for the deaths of more than 1,400 people in northern and central Nigeria. Its members are thought to have received training from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali.

The group has, among other things, called for an Islamic state in Nigeria, but its demands are not consistent.

Last week, what is believed to be the main branch of Boko Haram ruled out peace talks unless the government accepted the demand for such a state.

Jonathan is seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict

President Jonathan has accused Boko Haram of trying to incite religious unrest in Nigeria, which has a predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. Recently, several of its attacks have targeted churches, although Muslims have also been victims.

Until now, the Nigerian government has focused on military means to combat the attacks. The army has been accused of major abuses while carrying out raids.

Abati said the president was now looking at other options for solving the problem of the Boko Haram insurgency, including the implementation of social programs to increase prosperity and create jobs.

tj/msh (AFP, Reuters)