YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Cameroon’s president on Thursday freed more than 300 separatist fighters from the country’s Anglophone regions in an effort to calm a conflict that has killed nearly 3,000 people in the past two years.

President Paul Biya made the decision "in a bid to ensure that peace returns to Cameroon’s restive English-speaking regions,” according to a statement by Secretary General Ferdinand Ngo Ngo.

The order discontinues court proceedings against 333 fighters accused of misdemeanors but does not apply to their leaders who were sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal in August.

Cameroon is holding a national dialogue this week to try to resolve the conflict but other key separatist figures refused to attend. They demand that the government release their leader, Julius Ayuk Tabe.

The rebel groups also said they would agree to negotiations only if they take place in a foreign country with United Nations mediators and in the presence of world powers such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

The violence in Cameroon’s English-speaking North West and South West regions has displaced more than 500,000 people from their homes. The unrest first erupted in 2016 when teachers and lawyers protested against alleged discrimination at the hands of Cameroon's French-speaking majority.

Cameroon was once divided between British and French colonial powers. English speakers make up 20 percent of country's 24 million people and have long complained of being marginalized.

The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state called Ambazonia, which was declared by a militant secessionist group in October 2017. The group started attacking Cameroon officials, the military and police working in the region.

The military responded with offensives. Civilians in the middle have suffered.

Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute is leading this week’s talks, which include delegates from civil society groups, lawmakers, traditional rulers, clergy and Cameroonians who live overseas. The hope, he said, is that even without the presence of the separatists many fighters would give up their struggle.

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