Nigeria: Muslim leader calls for extremist amnesty

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By GODWIN ATTAH and JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — The top spiritual leader for Muslims in Nigeria called Tuesday for the nation's president to grant a "total amnesty" for Islamic extremists now launching attacks in the country in order to halt the violence.

The Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammed Abubakar, made the comments as a small village in northeast Nigeria awoke Tuesday to eight people dead, killings that are suspected of being carried out by the radical Islamic extremist network Boko Haram. It is part of a series of guerrilla bombings and shootings that have plagued Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north for two years — which has now started to include mass kidnappings of foreigners in the region.

Abubakar spoke before an Islamic group in Kaduna, a city on the fault line between the north and Nigeria's largely Christian south that has seen thousands killed in recent years in fighting between the two faiths. The sultan said that while conversations should continue among Muslims about how to encourage peace, President Goodluck Jonathan should consider offering a peace deal to stop the fighting.

"We want to use this opportunity to call on the government — especially Mr. President — to see how he can declare total amnesty to all combatants without thinking twice," he said. "If the amnesty is declared, the majority of those young men who have been running would come out and embrace that amnesty."

Though Abubakar did not speak in specifics, others have suggested offering an amnesty deal in lines with one previously given to militants in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta in 2009. That deal offered cash payments and job training to fighters in return for them giving up their weapons and halting attacks on foreign oil companies. The sultan is the highest ranking official so far to endorse such a plan for Islamic extremists, many of whom fight as part of Boko Haram and its splinter groups.

The 2009 amnesty deal, however, did not stop attacks in the delta, nor halt the rapidly growing theft of crude oil from pipelines there that has caused serious environmental damage. The militants there also attacked the commodity that fills the nation's coffers while typically not killing civilians. Meanwhile, Boko Haram is blamed for killing at least 792 people last year alone, according to an Associated Press count, and its attacks occur hundreds of miles away from the nearest oil well.

Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's leader, has dismissed previous offers for a peace deal and recently threatened the life of a man who claimed to be a group leader negotiating for one. The group is fighting to free its imprisoned members and install an Islamic government over Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege," has conducted its guerrilla fight across Nigeria's north over the last two years. The group's command-and-control structure remains unclear, though it appears to have sparked several splinter groups.

A group of men claiming to belong to Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven French tourists from northern Cameroon late February — a first for the group. Meanwhile, a Boko Haram splinter group known as Ansaru has claimed the recent kidnappings in northern Nigeria of seven foreigners — a British citizen, a Greek, an Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino — all employees of a Lebanese construction company called Setraco.

Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation's weak central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, human rights groups and local citizens blame both Boko Haram and security forces for committing violent atrocities against the local civilian population, fueling rage in the region.

On Monday night, witnesses say suspected Boko Haram fighters attacked Gwoza, a village in northeastern Borno state about 135 kilometers (80 miles) from the state capital Maiduguri. Gwoza resident Umaru Yahuza said the fighting targeted a bank and the police station in the village and that gunfire lasted throughout much of the night. Yahuza said residents awoke to find corpses in the streets.

A security official later told the AP that the Boko Haram gunmen killed seven civilians and a police inspector. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly with journalists.

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Associated Press writer Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .

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