Former militants confirm talks with Nigerian government to end Niger Delta attacks

YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - A Nigerian former militant group said on Sunday it has been holding talks with the government to end a wave of attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Niger Delta which has crippled the country's crude output. On Thursday, the office of President Muhammadu Buhari said the government was using oil firms and security agencies to talk to the militants "to find a lasting solution to insecurity in the region". "The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) wishes to confirm that indeed it has been in preliminary talks with the Federal Government through oil companies and law-enforcement agencies," the group said in a statement. MEND is a major former militant group which signed in 2009 an amnesty in exchange for cash and job training brokered by the previous government. It said the Niger Delta Avengers, a militant group that has claimed responsibility for a series of recent attacks, would not be part of the dialogue. "The Federal Government made it clear during our meetings that a negotiation with criminals is out of the question," MEND said. "The Niger Delta Avengers...fall under this category." The Niger Delta Avengers group had on Thursday said it was not aware of any talks with the government. Security sources have linked the Avengers to former commanders in MEND. Both groups hail from the same area. Militants say they want a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth to go to the impoverished Delta region. Crude sales make up about 70 percent of national income and the vast majority of that oil comes from the southern swampland. Nigeria, an OPEC member, was Africa's top oil producer until the recent spate of attacks pushed it behind Angola. Enforcing any peace deal would be difficult as the militant scene is divided into small groups where leaders do not control the unemployed youth they recruit. (Reporting by Tife Owolabi and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mary Milliken)