16 Saudi captives sent home from Gitmo

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The United States has sent home to Saudi Arabia 16 men who had been held for years at the U.S. prison camps in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the Saudi Press Agency reported Monday.

The weekend repatriation raised to 77 the number of Saudi captives who have now been returned from Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mansour al Turki told SPA.

He said 53 other citizens are still held at the U.S. military detention and interrogation facility in Cuba -- a source of tension in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz expressed his "great joy'' over the return of the 16 prisoners, praising "the cooperation by the American authorities," according to SPA. He said he hoped the remaining Saudi detainees would return home in the near future.

Three Saudis have died at Guantánamo, one in May and two in June 2006, in what prison camp officials have provisionally classified as "apparent suicides."

All three deaths, and the death of a fourth captive from Yemen, are still under investigation by the U.S. Navy's criminal investigative service.

A Defense Department announcement Monday morning confirmed the release of the 16 men, saying they "were determined to be eligible for transfer following a comprehensive series of review processes conducted at Guantánamo Bay."

The Pentagon reported the current captive population at ‘‘approximately 360'' at Guantánamo.

The captives who arrived on Saudi soil late Sunday were expected to remain in custody while authorities investigated whether they had links to militant organizations, the report said.

Six groups of Saudis have returned from Guantánamo, the first in May 2006, and all have been detained on arrival.

Saudis have been held at the U.S. Navy base since January 2002, after the Pentagon established an air bridge between Bagram, Afghanistan, and Cuba -- to hold and interrogate captives suspected of having links to or sympathies for al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Of the 759 people who have been held over the years at Guantánamo, according to Defense Department documents released to The Associated Press, 136 have been Saudis, making them the second-largest contingent of prisoners, behind Afghan nationals.