In the midst of U.S. efforts to thin its Guantánamo prison population, Britain is asking the White House to free five former British residents who have been held for years as war-on-terror captives at the remote U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
Among them: Ethiopian exile Binyam Mohammed, 29, who two years ago was charged as an al Qaeda co-conspirator in an ill-fated war crimes trial and claims the U.S. outsourced his interrogation to torture in Morocco.
Britain's Foreign Office made the repatriation request public Tuesday, saying Foreign Secretary David Miliband had written Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking for release of the five men.
''Discussions with the U.S. government are likely to take some time,'' a British foreign office official, Paul Welsh, wrote attorneys for the five men on Tuesday, saying, ``We cannot guarantee that we will be successful.
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``However, the U.S. government has recently taken steps to reduce the numbers of those detained at Guantánamo Bay and to move toward the closure of the detention facility. These steps include an increasing emphasis on engagement with third countries over the transfer and resettlement of those detained.''
In Washington, Defense Department spokesmen declined to say whether the British request would fit into an ongoing military assessment of the threat and intelligence value of Guantánamo detainees, a process that has been thinning the prison camps population.
''Roughly 80 detainees have been cleared for release or transfer from Guantánamo and will be transferred once humane treatment and continuing threat concerns have been satisfactorily addressed by the receiving country,'' said Navy Cmdr. Jeff Gordon, the Pentagon's spokesman on Guantánamo policy.
The British move marks a departure in British foreign policy under the new prime minister, Gordon Brown.
When Brown's predecessor and staunch Bush administration war-on-terror ally Tony Blair led the Labor Party, Britain only sought the return of citizens held for interrogation and detention at Guantánamo.
In the first few years, the United States released citizens from European nations held at Guantánamo, leaving the camps' population predominantly from Arab and south Asian countries.
Later, Britain also successfully requested the return of another Guantánamo detainee who had been a one-time British resident -- Bisher al Rawi, a 37-year-old Iraqi citizen who was released in April after disclosures that he had earlier been an informant to MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency.
Besides Mohammed, Brown's successor Labor Party government also this week asked for the return of Shaker Aamer, 36, a Saudi citizen who moved to Britain in 1996 and married a citizen there; Jamil el-Banna, 55, a Jordanian citizen and British resident since 1994 who was captured in Gambia and sent to Guantánamo with Rawi; Omar Deghayes, 38, a Libyan exile whose family fled the Gadhafi regime and studied law in London, and Abdennour Sameur, 34, an Algerian who fled his homeland and got asylum in England in 2000.
All the men had legal residency in Britain at the time of their capture in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gambia -- but their residency expired because of their absence from Britain while held as enemy combatants at Guantánamo.
A human rights attorney who has been critical of Bush administration efforts to stage war crimes trials at Guantánamo hailed the British initiative.
''This is exactly the kind of international pressure that is needed to make the goal of closing Guantánamo a reality,'' said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. ``We can only hope that other countries will follow suit.''