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U.S. sends four Guantanamo prisoners home to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: Four Afghans held for over a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been sent home to Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Saturday, the latest step in a slow-moving push by the Obama administration to close the facility.

The men were flown to Kabul overnight aboard a U.S. military plane and released to Afghan authorities, the first such transfer of its kind to the war-torn country since 2009, according to a U.S. official.

Obama promised to shut the internationally condemned prison when he took office nearly six years ago, citing the damage it inflicted on America’s image around the world. But he has been unable to do so, partly because of obstacles posed by the U.S. Congress.

With a recent trickle of releases, including the transfer of six prisoners to Uruguay earlier this month, Guantanamo’s detainee population has been gradually whittled down to 132.

The repatriation of the four Afghans, identified as “low-level detainees” who were cleared for transfer long ago and are not considered security risks in their homeland, had been in the pipeline for months.

But in a measure of what one senior U.S. official described as an improving relationship with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, Washington went ahead with the transfer after he formally requested it.

The continued detention of Afghans at Guantanamo – eight remain there – has long been deeply unpopular across the ideological spectrum in Afghanistan.

The release comes at a time when most U.S. troops are due to leave Afghanistan by year-end even as Taliban insurgents are intensifying their bloody campaign to re-establish their hardline Islamist regime that was toppled in a U.S.-backed military intervention in 2001.

All four men – identified as Shawali Khan, Khi Ali Gul, Abdul Ghani and Mohammed Zahir – were originally detained on suspicion of being members of the Taliban or affiliated armed groups.

But a second senior U.S. official said: “Most if not all of these accusations have been discarded and each of these individuals at worst could be described as low-level, if even that.”

The Afghan government gave the United States “security assurances” for the treatment of the former prisoners and was expected to reunite them with their families, the official said.

Guantanamo was opened by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, to house terrorism suspects rounded up overseas, with Afghans originally the largest group. Most of the detainees have been held for a decade or more without being charged or tried.

Thirteen other prisoners of various nationalities have been transferred from Guantanamo since early November, and several more could be repatriated or sent to countries other than their homelands by year-end, U.S. officials said.

Obama still faces major obstacles in trying to shut down the prison, among the biggest being the Yemeni detainees who make up more than half the remaining inmate population. Most have been cleared for transfer but are unable to return home because of the chaotic security situation in the Arabian Peninsula state.

Two weeks ago a U.S. Senate report delivered a scathing indictment of the harsh Bush-era interrogation program used on terrorism suspects. Obama banned the techniques when he took office in 2009. -Reuters

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