Two members of China’s Muslim Uighur minority were released from the US Guantanamo detention camp and resettled in El Salvador, becoming the first prisoners to leave the facility in more than 15 months, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The two men, whose names were not released, had been held for more than a decade without charge. A US court in Washington found that there was no reason to hold them and ordered them freed in 2008.
The Chinese government has demanded that Uighurs held at Guantanamo be returned to China, but the US government has said it could not do so because they would face persecution, and has searched for countries willing to accept them.
Their transfer to El Salvador reduced the population at the Guantanamo camp for foreign terrorism suspects to 169, down from 242 when President Barack Obama took office and unsuccessfully ordered the camp shut down within a year.
Most of the Uighurs who have been held at Guantanamo were captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in late 2001. Other Uighur Guantanamo prisoners have been resettled in Switzerland, Bermuda, Albania and the Pacific island of Palau.
Uighurs come from China’s largely Muslim far-west region of Xinjiang and many support autonomy or independence from China.
There are three Uighurs left at Guantanamo, all of whom have been cleared for release.
American efforts to resettle prisoners who have been cleared for release have been complicated by the US government’s own refusal to allow any into the United States, and by other restrictions imposed by Congress.
“In accordance with statutory reporting requirements, the administration informed Congress of its intent to transfer these individuals,” the Pentagon said.
It said the transfer was voluntary and had been ordered by a task force set up by the Obama administration in 2009.
“As a result of that review, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, these individuals were designated for transfer by unanimous consent among all six agencies on the task force,” the Pentagon said.
The men were the first prisoners to leave the detention camp alive since January 2011, when an Algerian captive was involuntarily returned to his homeland despite his claims that he feared abuse there.
Two Afghan prisoners have since died at Guantanamo and their bodies were sent home, one who died of apparent suicide by hanging and the other who collapsed after working out on an exercise machine in his cellblock.
Nearly 800 men have been held at the Guantanamo Bay US naval base in Cuba since the United States set up the detention center to hold suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
One more is expected to go home soon. The Canadian government received a formal request for transfer this week for Omar Khadr, the last citizen of a western nation held at Guantanamo.
Toronto-born Khadr was 15 when he was captured during a firefight at an al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan, and pleaded guilty in 2010 to terrorism charges that included throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier.
He was sentenced to eight additional years in prison as part of a plea agreement that made him eligible for repatriation in October 2011. Now 25, he is the youngest of the remaining prisoners.