By Ray Lilley
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Palau agreed to accept 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay, indicating a resolution to one of the major obstacles to closing the U.S. prison camp.
The announcement Wednesday by the Pacific archipelago, which would clear the last of the Uighurs from the camp in Cuba, was a major step toward the Obama administration's goal of finding new homes for detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing but cannot go home for fear of ill-treatment.
The U.S. feared the minority Uighurs would be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China, but the Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them on U.S. soil as free men. The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the Pentagon determined that they were not "enemy combatants."
President Johnson Toribiong said the decision of Palau, one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, was "a humanitarian gesture" intended to help the detainees restart their lives. His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, will accept up to 17 of the detainees subject to periodic review, Toribiong said in a statement released to The Associated Press.
"This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau," he said.
China, which has demanded the men be extradited to their homeland and pressured countries not to accept them, had no immediate reaction.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.
A former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 when it signed a Free Compact of Association with the U.S.
While it is independent, it relies heavily on U.S. aid and is dependent on the United States for its defense. Native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without passports or visas.
With eight main islands and more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China long has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.
A federal judge last year ordered the Uighur detainees released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not enemy combatants. But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since.
Human rights groups say there are as many as 40 other Guantanamo inmates who, if freed, cannot be returned to their homelands because they could face abuse, imprisonment or death. They come from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The U.S. has described a lack of resettlement options for them as an obstacle to emptying the prison. And President Barack Obama singled out the legal situation of the Uighurs in his May speech on national security.
Asked Tuesday about discussions with Palau on the Uighurs, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to comment beyond saying the U.S. is "working closely with our friends and allies regarding resettlement" of detainees at Guantanamo.
In 2006, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo but has since resisted taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.
The State Department said last week that Daniel Fried, the career diplomat who was named earlier this year to oversee Guantanamo's closure, had visited Palau but offered no details on his mission. Fried has been negotiating with third countries to accept many of the Guantanamo detainees.
Earlier this month, the 27 European Union countries agreed to take in "several dozen." Some European countries have accepted their own nationals while Albania, France, Sweden and Britain have also accepted non-citizens. Germany, which also has a Uighur community, believes the Guantanamo detainees should be resettled in the United States.
Australia, which has a Uighur population, rejected two requests by the Bush administration to take the detainees but is said to be reviewing Obama's request to take some of the Uighurs.
Obama has ordered the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed by January 2010 at the latest.
Copyright 2009 Associated Press
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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.