Mali campaigners 'persuade 200 young jihadists to disarm'

French and Malian flags fly over so-called Pinasse boat on the river Bani, a branch of the river Niger, at the commercial port of the central Malian city of Mopti on March 15, 2013 (AFP Photo/John MacDougall) (AFP/File)

Bamako (AFP) - Two hundred young Malian jihadists are ready to lay down their weapons as part of a new government and civil society deradicalisation programme, its organisers said Tuesday.

Some of the youths, aged between 16 and 30, had mounted attacks in the central Mopti region over the past year as members of the Macina Liberation Front, sources within the campaign said.

"For the last few weeks, we have overseen talks with and an awareness campaign for young people who had joined radical armed groups in the centre of Mali," said Hama Cisse, a former mayor of a Mopti district.

"Two hundred of them agreed to lay down their weapons and leave the ranks of the jihadists," he added.

"They are currently still in the Mopti region to convince their peers to give up their weapons," Cisse said.

Mopti borders the northern area of Mali that was overrun by Al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups and Tuareg-led rebels in 2012.

Those involved in central Mali's jihadist demobilisation drive include representatives from central and local governments, religious leaders and other prominent figures, campaigners told AFP.

The young people were not being paid to leave but had received free meals, they said.

Some of them had supplied information about attacks they were involved in, said Ousmane Diallo, a member of the collective, while others admitted they were part of small cells attacking civilians and symbolic government targets.

"These young people are our children. The majority didn't really know what they were doing. It makes sense to have intervened," said imam Hamadou Cisse, a civil society group member.

Malian, French and UN forces are attempting to maintain order over vast stretches of desert where extremist groups roam after being ousted from key northern towns after a French-led intervention in 2013.

The encroachment of armed groups beyond the country's troubled north and into the centre and south of the country was raised as an area of concern by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report last month.