December 30, 2011 / 3:03 PM / 6 years ago

INTERVIEW-Nigeria might talk to Boko Haram via "back channels"

ABUJA, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Nigerian security services are considering making contact with moderate members of shadowy Islamist sect Boko Haram via "back channels", even though explicit talks are officially ruled out, the national security adviser said on Friday.

Speaking a day after emergency meetings with President Goodluck Jonathan and top security officials in response to a spate of deadly Christmas Day bombings by the sect, National Security Adviser General Owoye Andrew Azazi told Reuters officials were looking at broadening efforts beyond pure security measures -- including addressing northern economic grievances.

"Even if government has a policy saying that there's no negotiation, that you can't reach out to Boko Haram, intelligence must find a way," Azazi said in an interview.

"I don't think it's everybody (in Boko Haram) who believes in the level of violence ... That's why you could have other channels for discussion ... It's something we could pursue."

Azazi declined to comment on whether contact with moderate members of Boko Haram had already been made.

"From our perspective, you try back channels. And when you are trying back channels, that's not when the president will come and announce to the whole of Nigeria that 'I'm talking to mister A or mister B,'" he said.

Azazi's comments signal an apparent shift from treating Boko Haram purely as a security issue that needs to be tackled militarily. Jonathan has been criticised for ignoring political avenues that might heal the north-south rift partly underpinning the conflict.

The death toll from a bomb attack on a church just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja on Christmas Day rose to 37, with 57 people wounded, emergency services said on Friday, underscoring the pressing need to deal with the threat of Islamist militancy.

"INVISIBLE ENEMY"

Azazi ruled out explicit negotiations of the type that ended the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta last year, because the leadership of the radical sect was so secretive.

"For now, Boko Haram is an invisible enemy. You don't have an identifiable person you can talk to," he said. By contrast, in the Niger Delta conflict, "at any time the government wanted a meeting, he rang them and said we'll come and talk. But nobody has come out openly and said 'we're Boko Haram'."

The bombing at St. Theresa's Catholic church in Madalla on Abuja's outskirts during a packed Christmas mass, was the deadliest of a series of Christmas attacks.

They raised fears the group is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war to fracture Nigeria along north-south lines.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the northern Hausa language, has been blamed for a campaign of shootings and bombings against security forces and authorities in the north since 2009.

Though firmly rooted in radical Islamist ideology, analysts say the anger on which it draws, especially amongst unemployed youths, has a lot to do with northern grievances about perceived alienation from oil riches concentrated in the south.

Azazi said other measures discussed with the president on Thursday included efforts to address those grievances.

"The president strongly believes that his economic plans will bring productivity to (northern) areas, especially focusing on agriculture. In the north, most people are farmers," he said.

"Someone who is gainfully employed is less likely to join (Boko Haram). They say Western education is taboo. If you go to school and you can't get employed, you'll not see the value in education," he said.

Attacks around the capital - including one on the U.N. headquarters in August that killed at least 24 people - suggest the group is trying to raise its profile.

Azazi said there was now wealth of evidence that Boko Haram had linked up with global jihadists like al Qaeda's north African wing (AQIM), including meetings between the sects members and AQIM, evidence some trained outside of Nigeria and their increasingly sophisticated bomb making technologies.

"Even their choice of targets. The U.N. bombing incident was a very professionally conducted operation," he said.

Other measures being considered included a revamp of intelligence services and a large increase in the police force, which at 350,000 for a population of 160 million was inadequate.

Azazi added that an assault on Boko Haram militants in Damaturu that killed 50 sect members just before Christmas was a "major, major event in which their armoury was destroyed." (Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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