Nigeria amnesty panel says talks possible with Islamists

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks in Abuja on February 12, 2013.  By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks in Abuja on February 12, 2013. By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

ABUJA (AFP) – The head of a panel set up to seek an amnesty deal with Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram voiced confidence Wednesday that members of the insurgent group could be brought into talks.

The statement came as rescue workers deployed to the remote northeastern town of Baga, where the Red Cross says fierce gun battles killed 187 people.

The military has disputed this figure, but the toll makes the Baga violence the deadliest episode yet in the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed thousands since 2009.

President Goodluck Jonathan created the amnesty panel last week to study how a deal could be offered to the extremists.

Jonathan has previously referred to Boko Haram as “ghosts” who could not be talked to.

The group’s purported leader Abubakar Shekau, declared a global terrorist by the United States, has dismissed any idea of an amnesty deal with the government.

But the amnesty committee chairman said there was hope for negotiations.

“I think the first strategy is to open up a line of communication and I am sure there are a lot of links that we can work on,” Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, Nigeria’s minister for special duties, said after the panel’s first meeting.

“It is when they have trust in us and we build confidence that all stakeholders will sit down…to say ‘this is our feeling, this is our position, these are our grudges or these are our complaints,'” Turaki said of the panel’s strategy.

Boko Haram, blamed for scores of attacks across northern and central, is believed to be made up of different factions, including a hardcore Islamist cell.

Shekau’s extreme jihadist faction may resist a compromise with the secular government, analysts say.

But many of the sect’s fighters are thought to be dejected northern youths who have been radicalised out of frustration with excessive government corruption and acute poverty.

Brutal clashes broke out at the weekend in Baga between soldiers and insurgents, during which troops have been accused of firing indiscriminately on civilians and setting fire to much of the town near Lake Chad.

The military has disputed reports that 187 people were killed, saying only 37 people died during fighting in the fishing town near Lake Chad, including 30 insurgents, six civilians and one soldier.

The area falls under the control of a multi-national force, with troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Niger’s defence ministry on Wednesday denied media reports that its soldiers were involved in the fighting and it was not clear if any foreign soldiers took part.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) told AFP that its staff were giving out food, medicine and clothing to the surviving victims of the bloodshed on Wednesday, but getting details from the town was difficult because of a poor phone network.

Boko Haram set fire to telecommunication masts in the northeast last year, crippling the network in parts of the region.

“They are in Baga right now…The NEMA team is comprised of medics to care for those who were injured,” said spokesman Manzo Ezekiel.

He added that they are also distributing mosquito nets to protect those who lost their homes from malaria infection.

Before the violence in Baga, the deadliest day in the Boko Haram crisis came in January last year, when at least 185 people were killed in coordinated attacks in the city of Kano.

Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north. The southern half of the country, Africa’s most populous and top oil producer, is mostly Christian.

The insurgency is estimated to have left 3,000 people dead, including killings by the security forces, accused by rights groups of committing widespread abuses in campaigns against the Islamists.