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US soldier freed by Taliban in prisoner swap

- Guantanamo detainees exchanged for release of sergeant held by militants for five years
Obama speaks about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release as his parents Jani Bergdahl (left) and Bob Bergdahl look on in the White House on Saturday. (AP)

Washington, June 1: The lone American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to American forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said yesterday.

The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to American Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10.30am on Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, American officials said. Moments later, Sergeant Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, American officials said. He was described in good physical condition.

The five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be linked to operations that killed American and allied troops as well as implicated in murdering thousands of Shias in Afghanistan, were flown from Cuba in the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state. They will be subject to security restrictions there, including a one-year travel ban.

Senior administration officials cautioned that the discussions over the prisoner swap, which were secretly restarted last fall after collapsing several months earlier, did not necessarily presage the resumption of the broader, on-again-off-again peace talks to end the 13-year war.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl

“This is the only issue we’ve discussed with the Taliban in recent months,” said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. “We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don’t have any promises to that effect.”

But word of renewed, secret negotiations with the Taliban brought criticism from some lawmakers, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now-released Taliban leaders, and I have even less confidence in this administration’s willingness to ensure they are enforced,” he said. “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”

A western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Sergeant Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. American officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.

President Barack Obama personally called the soldier’s parents on Saturday, shortly after Sergeant Bergdahl was transferred to the American military; the Bergdahl family was in Washington after a visit here for Memorial Day, officials said.

Later on Saturday in the White House Rose Garden, Obama, flanked by Robert and Jani Bergdahl, the sergeant’s parents, said: “Right now, our top priority is making sure that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs, and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible.”

The Bergdahls, who have waged a tireless campaign for their son’s release, have sometimes criticised the Obama administration. But at the impromptu Rose Garden appearance and in a statement released earlier in the day, they praised the American and Qatari governments for their help. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” they said in the statement. “Today, we are ecstatic!”

A Pentagon official yesterday evening said Sergeant Bergdahl was en route to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He would then be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio when doctors felt he was fit to travel.

Negotiations and internal deliberations over the potential for a swap have waxed and waned for years, but they intensified in the past several weeks as an agreement appeared within reach, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Among other complications, there was a potential legal obstacle: Congress has imposed statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The statutes say the secretary of defence must determine that a transfer is in the interest of national security, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and that the secretary notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of his determination.

In this case, the secretary, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged in a statement that he did not notify Congress ahead of time. When Obama signed a bill containing the latest version of the transfer restrictions into law, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them under his executive powers.

Prisoner swaps have been more common in conventional wars between two nation-state armies than in the sort of insurgency conflict that characterised Afghanistan and Iraq, and American officials could not cite another instance in which an American soldier had been freed in these conflicts in a swap.

The transfer reduces the detainee population at Guantanamo to 149.

Sergeant Bergdahl was believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. The circumstances of how he was separated from his unit and captured have remained a mystery.

Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over about 7pm local time without incident with the several dozen Special Operations troops spending only a few minutes on the ground, said American officials.

The Taliban statement said that the swap was “a result of non-straightforward negotiations” with the United States, with mediation by Qatar, and that the released detainees “will reside in Qatar with their families”.

 
 
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