By Ibrahim Mshlizza and Lanre Ola
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's military released 58 women and children suspected of having links with Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram to local governments on Friday, who will in turn return them to their homes in a gesture meant to draw moderates into peace talks.
President Goodluck Jonathan is launching his biggest offensive yet to oust Islamist insurgents seen as the main threat to Africa's top oil producer from their strongholds in the northeast. But he says he also wants to pursue a peaceful resolution with fighters willing to surrender.
"The detainees will be rehabilitated and integrated into the society," Yobe State Attorney General Ahmed Mustapha Goniri said while receiving 38 women and children from the military.
Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima, one of many urging the government to release low-risk detainees as a good-will gesture, said a further six women and 14 young men were handed over to him on Friday.
"This marks a milestone in our quest for peace and to restore normalcy," he said.
Jonathan ordered the release of the detainees and has offered amnesty to any Boko Haram's members who surrender on the advice of a peace resolution committee he set up in April.
Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau, who has dismissed peace talks and says his fighters are repelling the offensive, has repeatedly demanded that the government release the wives and children of its members who were being held in detention.
It was not clear how many of the released women were wives of Boko Haram fighters or were just accused of helping the sect.
While critics have welcomed an alternative approach to ending the violence, security experts believe the most hardened Boko Haram cells will never surrender and the longer fighting continues the more civilians will lose faith in any peace offer.
Jonathan declared a state of emergency on May 14 in the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, which have been the worst hit by Boko Haram's four-year insurgency that has killed more than 3,000 people and left remote regions under the insurgents' control.
Thousands of extra troops were sent to the region and Boko Haram camps were hit with air strikes. The military has since claimed the insurgency has been halted.
The intervention followed a surge in violence by Boko Haram, which wants to establish an Islamic state in its northeast heartland, where it launched an uprising in 2009.
Islamist groups like Boko Haram and the al Qaeda linked Ansaru have become the biggest risk to stability in Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer and second largest economy.
Nigeria had been criticised by human rights groups for the detention of women and children without any formal charges.
Nigerian soldiers have also been accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings, torturing suspects and causing mass civilian casualties during offensives.
The army denies it commits rights abuses and says civilians die in crossfire.
(Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Tim Cocks and Michael Roddy)