April 29, 2015 / 7:39 PM / 2 years ago

France to set up center for returning young jihadists by year-end

PARIS (Reuters) - France will open a center late this year to help reintegrate young French citizens who return from conflict zones such as Syria but are not subject to prosecution, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Wednesday.

France is a top Western source country for jihadi volunteers and more than 100 have returned home after fighting in Syria and Iraq, which can land them in prison. Their lawyers say heavy sentences risk making them in to hardened criminals.

But there are also those who return disappointed and repentant, including young women, for whom France has so far had no plan to receive and reintegrate.

In April last year, the French government adopted a plan aimed at preventing potential jihadist sympathizers before they leave by setting up an online service for families who suspect relatives are about to go and join these radical groups.

Reception centers were created at prefectures for parents of potential jihadists. A year later, nearly 1,900 cases have been registered, of which a quarter are for minors and more than 40 percent for young girls, Valls said.

"We have to go further and explore new avenues," he said at the end of an international meeting of anti-terror magistrates in Paris.

"A structure will be created by the end of the year to take charge, on a voluntary basis, of young people returning from conflict zones who are not, of course, being prosecuted."

It was not immediately clear how many repentant returnees there are who would want to seek this psychological counseling. Most attention to returning jihadists so far has been focused on breaking up plots by those determined to attack.

Cherif and Said Kouachi, two of the three Islamist militants who killed 17 people in January in attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store, were reported to have gone for weapons training in Yemen.

Authorities say they have broken up five plots since then, including a plan to attack two churches in a southern suburb foiled earlier this month.

Reporting by Chine Labbe; Writing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise; Editing by Michel Rose and Tom Heneghan

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