WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Palau agreed to accept 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at Guantánamo 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 mistreatment.
The U.S. feared that 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.
News of Palau's offer has disappointed some residents of Tallahassee, who had offered to accept some of the Uighurs.
''We worked hard. We really wanted them to come here. We obviously hope they find Palau a happy home, but we were fully ready at any moment since last September to receive three of the 17,'' said attorney Kent Spriggs of Tallahassee, who had coordinated an interfaith effort to provide jobs, an American Muslim spiritual advisor and housing for the men.
``We had jobs for them. We had a spiritual home for them. We had housing for them. We really were and are welcoming to them.''
Congress' reluctance to let the Uighurs come to the United States had not in any way diminished the enthusiastic welcome that Tallahassee religious leaders were planning, he said.
China, which has demanded the men be extradited to their homeland and pressured countries not to accept them, had no immediate reaction.
$200M FROM U.S.
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.
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 Guantánamo.
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 east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
TROUBLES WITH CHINA
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.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.