The Pentagon freed five Guantánamo prisoners to resettlement in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, a day after they left on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane that had to circle back to the base in Cuba with a mechanical problem.
The transfers of three Yemenis and two Tunisians demonstrated the far-flung nature of the State Department’s resettlement deals as it tries to chart new lives for cleared captives whose home nations are too unsettled for repatriation.
It was also the latest in a surge of transfers that has reduced the prison camp population to 127.
But it got off to a shaky start for the captives who, though cleared for release years ago, typically depart as they arrived — in shackles with blindfolds and ears muffled.
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The five were first flown from the base in a C-17 “Globemaster” on Monday, but the pilot circled back about an hour later because of “a mechanical issue,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a Pentagon spokesman. The Air Force scrambled a second C-17 to Guantánamo and the five were flown off the base again, about 24 hours later.
All five men were cleared in 2009 by a national security task force that President Barack Obama had assembled upon taking office to examine the captives’ files. None had ever been charged with a crime at Guantánamo.
One of them, Tunisian Abdullah Bin Ali al Lufti, 48, got to Guantánamo in February 2003 with heart problems and other health issues. By June 2004, according to leaked U.S. military documents, the prison deemed him “low risk, due to his medical condition” and recommended his release or transfer to detention in another country.
There was no immediate explanation of why Lufti spent the next decade in detention as Prisoner No. 894, but U.S. officials have described Tunisian repatriations as difficult because of political instability in that north African nation.
In 2005 he told an administrative review board of U.S. military officers that his captivity was a mistake. “I do not present a threat. I am a poor person … a sick person,” he said. Once released, he added: “I will find a job, open something, find something, lead a normal life.”
The other four were Asim Thahit Abdullah al Khalaqi, 46, a Yemeni who was held as prisoner 152; Adel al Hakeemy, 49, Tunisian, held as prisoner 168; Mohammed Ali Hussain, 36, Yemeni, held as prisoner 254 and Sabri Muhammed Ibrahim al Qurashi, 44, Yemeni, held as prisoner 570.
The transfer also signals a surge of European resettlement deals for Yemenis, the majority of Guantánamo’s remaining 59 cleared captives who cannot go home because of a powerful, potentially destabilizing al-Qaida faction in the Arabian Peninsula nation. The Obama administration in November sent two Yemenis to resettlement in Slovakia and three to the Republic of Georgia.
Kazakhstan, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, has a majority Muslim population and oil reserves. The Bush administration repatriated four Kazakhstanis from Guantánamo in 2006 and 2008; none has surfaced in the news since.
At the Pentagon on Wednesday, Caggins declined to say when or what Guantánamo’s typically tight-lipped troops told the men about their aborted journey — and whether guards ferried them back across the bay from the airstrip to a Detention Center Zone lockup until the new aircraft arrived.
Military officials at the prison, and at Southern Command, which oversees the operations, similarly declined to elaborate on how the captives were treated during the 24-hour delay.
Caggins said the captives got “the same level of care and custody” during the delay that they get at Guantánamo. “As with any interaction with the detainees, they were informed of the situation to the extent the information was related to their detention or transfer,” he said.
At U.S. Transportation Command, a spokeswoman said Wednesday that the C-17 pilot turned back because of “a minor mechanical issue with one of the aircraft’s four engines.” She did not elaborate.
“Aircraft turning back for a maintenance issue, while not common, does happen on occasion,” said U.S. Air Force Reserve Col. Linda Pepin from Transcom at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
She called the C-17 “very reliable aircraft” with a “90 percent departure reliability rate.” They haul cargo around the world each day, she said, including “presidential and vice presidential support equipment.”
Both Tunisians had lived in Italy at one time, and were initially held at Guantánamo on suspicion of ties to jihadist groups.
In the case of Hakeemy, he had worked as a chef there for years and had traveled to Pakistan to marry, said his attorney Alka Pradhan of the legal defense group Reprieve.
His wife was pregnant with their now 13-year-old daughter at the time of his capture by Pakistani forces, who turned him over to the Americans, she added. He has spoken to the child by phone from Guantánamo, the lawyer added, either while she was with her mother in Belgium or the father’s family in Tunisia.
This week’s Kazakhstan transfer raised to 28 the total number of detainees released in 2014 — including the controversial May release of five Taliban captives to a year’s custody in Qatar before their possible return to Afghanistan.
This year marks the largest number of transfers since 2009, which straddled the Obama and Bush administrations and saw the Pentagon release 49 from Guantánamo.
This year also saw the first detainee resettlements in South America. Uruguay took in six men Dec. 7, then President José Mujica released a letter from the State Department special envoy assigned to help close the controversial prison that said none of the six had links to terrorism.
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