MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - A purported senior member of Islamist militant group Boko Haram has distributed a letter requesting talks with the government, a day after a double suicide bombing blamed on the sect killed at least 11 and wounded 30 in an army barracks.
The letter was signed by Sheik Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulazeez, a man known by local security sources to be a sect member but considered to be a moderate.
If the letter is genuine, it would appear to mark a change of tack for the Islamists that fits ill with a spate of violent episodes, including the bombing of the military church on Sunday. That bombing showed a degree of sophistication not seen from Boko Haram for months.
Nearly 3,000 people have died violent deaths related to the conflict since the sect launched its uprising in 2009, according to a count by Human Rights Watch. Boko Haram has replaced militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta over that time to become the biggest security threat to Africa’s top energy producer.
The letter was handed to the national head of the union of journalists, Aba Kakami, who has often received and distributed statements from the sect, usually claiming attacks against high profile targets or warning of them.
Communication with the shadowy Islamists, who are fighting to impose sharia, Islamic law, on Nigeria, has been even more sporadic than normal since the military killed their spokesman Abu Qaqa in September in a gun battle.
Abdulazeez first contacted journalists in Maiduguri earlier this month, setting conditions for peace talks in teleconference and nominating former military ruler and northerner Muhammadu Buhari as a mediator. Buhari has since declined the offer.
“We are by this letter of invitation to our respected elders proving to government that we are not joking with the government, but we are awaiting the response of those concerned,” the letter said.
Abdulazeez said he was speaking on behalf of Abubakar Shekau, the sect’s leader.
But even if Abdulazeez does represent Shekau, the extent to which Boko Haram is controlled by Shekau is in doubt, and analysts think military pressure has fragmented it.
The letter nominated as mediator Imam Gabchiya, an official from the university in the city of Maiduguri, in the heartland of the Islamist insurgency against President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.
There was no immediate reaction from government officials, but Jonathan said on November 18 that no talks were going on with Boko Haram while they remained faceless and in the shadows.
The handover of the letter came three days after Nigeria’s army offered a 290 million naira ($1.8 million) bounty for information leading to the capture of 19 leading members of the sect.
Reporting by Ibrahim Mshelizza; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams