Five Chinese Uighur Muslims released from Guantanamo, sent to Albania

1 hour, 34 minutes ago

The United States freed five Chinese Uighur Muslims from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and sent them to Albania for resettlement, brushing aside Beijing's demand they be sent home.

The five were released from the facility in Cuba after it was determined they were "no longer enemy combatants," the Defense Department said.

"The United States has done the utmost to ensure that the Uighurs will be treated humanely upon release," a Pentagon statement said.

"Our key objective has been to resettle the Uighurs in an environment that will permit them to rebuild their lives. Albania will provide this opportunity," it said.

The State Department said separately that "the government of Albania's resettlement of these individuals is an important humanitarian gesture."

The five are believed to be among a group of about 20 Uighur Muslims cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay, where the Pentagon said 480 detainees still remained.

It said a total of 272 detainees had been transferred or released so far from the facility.

Most of the Uighurs were believed to have been captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan after Washington launched its "war on terror" campaign following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, rights groups said.

US authorities have asked nearly two dozen nations to provide asylum for the Uighur detainees without success, in part because other nations do not want to anger the Chinese.

Beijing has demanded that all Chinese nationals from Guantanamo should be returned but Washington held them back for fear that the government would persecute or torture them.

Uighur Muslims, who maintain a distinct ethnic identity from the Chinese, are seeking their own homeland on territory that is now part of northwestern China.

They have been fighting to re-establish the independent state of East Turkestan in Xinjiang since the province became an autonomous region of China in 1955. The Chinese government has accused some of them of being terrorists.

The Uighur American Association welcomed the release of the five, who they said had already arrived safely in Albania.

"This is just incredible news," said Nury Turkel, the association's president, in Washington. "It's all been very sudden and unexpected, but we understand that all five men are healthy and happy to be free, if a little bewildered by events."

It is not yet known what conditions were set for the men's release, nor what prompted the Albanian government to accept the men.

Their release came ahead of a weekend visit to Croatia by US Vice-President Dick Cheney who is scheduled to meet leaders of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.

The US Supreme Court last month refused to hear an appeal by two of the Uighur detainees despite an acknowledgement by officials that they are not "war on terror" suspects.

The court wanted to wait until a lower court had ruled on the case.

Barbara Olshansky, the attorney for the two, said, "We've been working for months to try and make arrangements" for their release.

"The government did not want to face the court. It's a complete surprise, it's very upsetting. We got no notification, no opportunity to get anything in place to make sure there is no restriction on their release," she said.

Olshansky claimed she had a court order allowing attorneys a chance to meet with their clients before any release arrangements were made.

According to her, 17 Uighurs remain in Guantanamo.