ISLAMABAD/ KARACHI: The Afghan Taliban on Sunday trumpeted the release of ‘five key Taliban leaders’ from Guantanamo Bay detention centre as a ‘great victory’, hours after they arrived in Qatar where “they will live with their families” apparently in protective custody.
A day earlier, US President Barack Obama disclosed that Washington had swapped five Taliban detainees with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years.
Confirming the trade-off, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid identified the freed men as Mullah Muhammad Fazal Akhund, Mullah Noorulla Noori, Mullah Khairulla Khairkhwa, Mullah Abdul Haq Waseeq and Maulvi Muhammad Nabi. “They had been incarcerated for the last 13 years in ‘Guantanamo jail’,” he added.
Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika, with the Taliban later saying they had captured him. Bergdahl was the only American soldier held captive by the Taliban.
The Express Tribune has learnt that Bergdahl had been in the custody of the Haqqani Network and was once shown in a video with senior group’s commander Mulla Sangeen, who was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan late last year.
Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar congratulated “the Afghan nation, Mujahideen and relatives and families of the released men”. “Indeed it’s a great and clear victory. All mujahideen should thank God who accepted their sacrifices and freed our comrades from the clutches of the enemy,” he said in a statement emailed to The Express Tribune by the Taliban spokesperson on Sunday.
Mullah Omar credited the “statesman-like efforts of the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” for the release of the Taliban detainees. “I also thank the state of Qatar and its Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani for his sincere efforts and mediation,” he added.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al Attiyah said his country mediated the swap out of humanitarian concern. “When it comes to humanitarian matters, the Emir does not hesitate,” he said. “This is what happened in the case of the US sergeant and the five Taliban detainees,” he told a press conference in Doha.
The prisoner swap took place simultaneously at 7pm (AST) on Saturday, according to the Taliban spokesperson. The Taliban detainees were handed over to a Qatari delegation that “had been waiting in Guantanamo Bay for three days”, he added. “[At the same time] Bergdahl was handed over to the other side in the suburbs of Khost province.”
President Obama has been sharply criticised by Republican lawmakers for the trade-off which, they believe, will encourage Taliban and other militants to kidnap more American soldiers. Obama, however, defended his decision saying that the Qatari government had given assurances of measures to protect US national security.
The Taliban detainees arrived in Qatar on Sunday and were received by the Political Office of the Taliban and members of the group’s Leadership Council. They would apparently remain in the protective custody of Qatar.
“They will remain with their families inside Qatar and will lead a normal life,” the Taliban spokesperson said without explaining for how long. However, an informed Qatari source told AFP that “They [Taliban detainees] will stay for one year in Qatar”.
Some Taliban sources have also confirmed to The Express Tribune that families of some the freed Taliban have already moved to the Gulf state. They also say the freed Taliban leaders could be given responsibility in the future dialogue office.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2014.
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