A former Nigerian president has urged relatives of a slain radical Muslim sect leader to halt the group's increasingly bloody attacks against the government, meeting attendees said Friday.
The unannounced meeting came just weeks after the group known as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a car bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria that killed 23 people and wounded 116.
The attack launched far from the group's base in the country's northeast represented a major escalation in violence. Officials also fear the shadowy group now has ties to al-Qaida-linked terror organizations elsewhere in Africa.
On Thursday, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke with the family of late Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf for two hours in the northeast city of Maiduguri, civil rights activist Shehu Sani said.
The meeting represented the first visit of a Nigerian leader to the family since Yusuf was killed while in police custody following a 2009 sect riot and security crackdown that left 700 people dead.
Obasanjo's visit shows the government's growing desperation in its fight against Boko Haram, which wants to implement Islamic law across northern Nigeria.
Obasanjo, who led Nigeria as a military ruler in the 1970s and later as its first elected president, remains a powerful force in the country's politics and in regional diplomacy. Yusuf's family agreed to meet with Obasanjo as he never cracked down on the sect during his eight years in office, Sani said.
During Thursday's meeting, Sani said Obasanjo asked the family why the sect continued to attack security agents, clerics and government officials. Relatives said the attacks represented revenge against the government for Yusuf's death and the killing of two other leaders during the 2009 uprising, Sani said.
Yusuf's relatives also provided rare details about the group, saying they have representatives in Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
"They said the Nigerian security forces and the army cannot crush them because they have the capacity to reach out to anywhere if they want to," Sani said.
Speaking Friday to the AP in Maiduguri, Yusuf's relative Babakura Fugu said the meeting with Obasanjo raised their "confidence by 100 percent." Fugu said the former president promised to brief current President Goodluck Jonathan about the talk.
Family members asked Obasanjo to have their destroyed homes rebuilt, to receive a promised court settlement of $6,600 from the government, Fugu said. They also asked that officials compensate other sect members who lost relatives in the 2009 security crackdown.
It remains unclear who is actually leading Boko Haram since Yusuf's death. Analysts and diplomats have said they believe the sect is split into at least three sub-groups, each with its own loose command-and-control structure.
Complex bank robberies appear to be aimed at funding the group, but Yusuf's family said about 40 percent of the sect's funding now comes from outside of Nigeria.
Last month, the commander for U.S. military operations in Africa told the AP that Boko Haram may be trying to coordinate attacks with al-Shabab of Somalia and north African terror group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is split largely between a Christian south and a Muslim north. Unemployment and unceasing poverty, coming despite the nation making billions a year from oil production, have fueled resentment in recent years in the north. Boko Haram and other extremist groups have tapped into that unrest.
Associated Press Writer Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.