DOHA/WASHINGTON: US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (pictured), the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan, has been released following a swap deal with Taliban brokered by Qatar.
As part of Bergdahl’s release, the US is turning over five Taliban detainees at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of Qatar, US officials said.
Bergdahl’s freedom followed a renewed round of indirect US-Taliban talks in recent months, with Qatar acting as intermediary, the officials said.
US President Barack Obama announced the release of Bergdahl after being held prisoner in Afghanistan for nearly five years, and thanked Qatar for its mediatory role.
“On behalf of the American people, I was honoured to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal…For his assistance in helping to secure our soldier’s return, I extend my deepest appreciation to the Emir of Qatar. The Emir’s personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries. The United States is also grateful for the support of the Government of Afghanistan throughout our efforts to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release,” said Obama.
Earlier in March, Qatar had mediated the release of 13 Orthodox nuns abducted in Syria.
In June last year, Taliban had opened its political office in Doha which was later closed down following a dispute over a flag.
Bergdahl was the only known missing US soldier in the Afghan war that was launched soon after the 9/11 attacks to dislodge the Taliban from power. He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
Bergdahl’s release yesterday was the result of years of on and off negotiations that a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said revived last November when the Taliban signaled it wanted to resume talks on prisoners, Reuters reported yesterday. No direct US-Taliban talks were involved, officials said, and messages were past via Qatari officials. The final stage of negotiations, which took place in the Qatari capital of Doha, began one week ago, the US officials said.
Obama and Qatar’s Emir spoke on Tuesday and reaffirmed the security conditions under which the Taliban members would be placed while in Qatari custody, they said.
The Taliban prisoners were to be handed over to authorities in Qatar. They were named yesterday as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq, Al Jazeera reported.
All were high-ranking members of the Taliban government toppled by the US in 2001. Fazl was the deputy defence minister, while Noori was the governor of Balkh province. A senior White House official told Al Jazeera that the US administration would not transfer any prisoners from Guantanamo “unless the threat they may pose to the US can be mitigated”.
He added that the Taliban prisoners would be “subject to restrictions on their movement and activities”. The deal was agreed through indirect talks with the Taliban’s political commission and was part of a broader reconciliation framework, the official said.
Obama announced this week that he would keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan, mostly to train Afghan forces, after Nato combat operations cease at the end of 2014. The last soldiers, aside from a small presence at US diplomatic posts, will leave at the end of 2016.