As a radical Islamist sect continues violent attacks across Nigeria's north, the nation is searching for possible negotiators to serve as an indirect channel to a group whose very structure remains a mystery.
Government officials, including President Goodluck Jonathan, have said that negotiation with the sect known as Boko Haram remains a possible way to end the killings. In recent weeks, there have been efforts to reach out to the sect to create a way of holding talks, though the attempts remain preliminary at best, a man involved in previous efforts at dialogue told The Associated Press on Friday.
The man requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the efforts.
Efforts "are actually going on but the problem being faced now is the group wanted the talks to be discrete," the man said. "It is now in the public realm."
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, is blamed for more than 360 killings this year alone, according to an AP count. The sect, employing suicide bombers and assault-rifle shootouts, has attacked both Christians and Muslims, as well as the United Nations' headquarters in Nigeria. Authorities also blame the sect for the kidnapping of a British and Italian hostage who were killed in a failed rescue operation March 8, though a sect spokesman has denied the group's involvement.
Nigeria's government has reached out to supposed links to the sect in the past, the man said, though those individuals exaggerated their influence in a group believed by analysts and Western diplomats to have splintered. The violent, extremist wing of the sect has ties to two other al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa and appears to be led by Sheik Abubakar Shekau, who has issued Internet video messages promising more attacks.
Now, officials have reached out to Datti Ahmed, a Kano physician who heads a prominent Muslim group, the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria, the man said. Ahmed did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
However, Ahmed himself has a checkered past in Nigeria's history. He sparked a boycott of polio vaccines in 2003 in Nigeria after saying the vaccines were "corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies." That led to hundreds of new infections in children in Nigeria's north, where the disease is still active today.
Government officials in Nigeria, including its security agencies, declined to comment Friday on the possible negotiations.
Politicians, including President Jonathan, a Christian, have suggested Boko Haram should negotiate with the government for peace. However, Shekau has struck an increasingly violent tone in videos purportedly posted by the sect to the Internet, including saying: "I will enjoy killing (those against us) like I am killing a chicken."
An attempt in September by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to reach out to the sect saw the go-between killed less than two days later.
Boko Haram, which speaks only through sporadically held teleconferences with local journalists, has not commented about the possible negotiations. However, in its last communication March 9, a sect spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul Qaqa said negotiations would "never be possible."
"We will not sit at any meeting with government until all our arrested members in detention are freed unconditionally," the sect spokesman said then. "We have once given them the benefit of the doubt but they ended up betraying us."
Meanwhile, killings attributed to the sect continue as authorities say that two people were killed Thursday in shootings carried out by suspected members.
Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; Salisu Rabiu in Kano, Nigeria and Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.