The Pentagon sent five long-held Arab detainees to resettlement in Europe on Thursday, three to Georgia and two to Slovakia.
The transfer, announced after a U.S. C-17 cargo plane cleared Georgian airspace in its two-nation mission, left 143 captives still at the prison camps in southeast Cuba.
More transfers are in the pipeline, including another six captives who can’t go home to Middle East trouble spots and are approved to go to Uruguay, perhaps in December.
“We are very grateful to our partners for these generous humanitarian gestures,” State Department envoy Cliff Sloan said in an email to the Miami Herald. “We appreciate the strong support we are receiving from our friends and allies around the globe.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The undisclosed number of looming transfers has grown so large that last week Republican Rep. Buck McKeon, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, told Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that he was concerned by the surge in 30-day transfer notices to Congress. He did not disclose the number.
The freed men included four Yemenis and a Tunisian, who range in age from 31 to 48. All five were approved for release in the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration, but for reasons of instability in their homelands, they could not be sent there. So instead State Department diplomats found other nations to accept them.
These are the first Yemeni nationals to be resettled since 2010. The last Yemeni to leave was Adnan Latif, cleared for release as were the men who left Thursday, but he was found dead of a drug overdose in his cell in September 2012. His remains were repatriated three months later.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, deferred to the diplomats to say whether the focus of prison closure efforts was on settlement elsewhere rather than repatriation to Yemen, the country with the largest number of cleared captives awaiting release. “I do know that conditions in Yemen are getting worse,” the lieutenant colonel said.
At the State Department, spokesman Ian Moss said transfer decisions are tailored to each cleared-detainee case.
“While our policy preference is to repatriate detainees where we can do so consistent with our national security and humane treatment policies, under certain circumstances the most viable transfer option is resettlement in a third country,” Moss said by email.
As far back as 2004, the detention center approved one of them, Salah Mohammed Al Thabbi, 42, for transfer to a Saudi lockup, according to leaked Guantánamo documents. He was born in Mecca. Saudi Arabia, but is a citizen of Yemen, the Arabian Gulf nation with a destabilizing al-Qaida franchise that has troubled years of prospective U.S. transfers and releases.
Thursday, he went to Georgia, in Eastern Europe. That nation had previously taken in three other Guantánamo detainees. The other two sent there this week were Yemenis Abdel Ghalib Hakim, 36, and Abdul Khaled al Baidani, 31. All three got to Guantánamo in 2002.
Earlier in Slovakia, according to Pentagon spokesman Caggins, the same U.S. military transport team handed over Tunisian Hisham Sliti, 48, and Yemeni Hussain Almerfedi, 36. Sliti got to Guantánamo in 2002 and Almerfedi in 2003.
Slovakia had already taken in six other cleared detainees, most recently granting asylum on New Year’s Eve to three Uighur Muslims who were long ago cleared but couldn’t go back to China for fear of persecution.
Almerfedi’s stay-or-go status at Guantánamo was a bit of a roller coaster. In 2010, a federal judge ordered his release on an unlawful detention suit, a ruling that was appealed by the government and overturned a year later. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear his case.
Thursday’s transfer left 74 captives cleared for transfer among the last 143 Guantánamo captives.
Those not cleared to leave include the lone war crimes convict, who had been Osama bin Laden’s media secretary; six men awaiting death-penalty trials as alleged conspirators in al-Qaida’s Sept. 11 and USS Cole attacks and an Iraqi man accused of leading al-Qaida’s army in Afghanistan. The rest are kept as possible candidates for military tribunals or so-called “forever prisoners,” ineligible for release but for whom there isn’t any evidence to be tried.
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter