Freed US soldier on his way home, 5 Taliban prisoners leave GTMO
The sole American prisoner of war held in Afghanistan was flown to a US military hospital in Germany today after being freed in a swap deal for five Taliban militants who were released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held for nearly five years and his release, following years of negotiations, suddenly became possible after harder-line factions of the Afghan Taliban shifted course and agreed to back it, US officials said.
In exchange for Bergdahl's freedom, the US released five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo. A senior Gulf source confirmed they had arrived in Doha, capital of Qatar, the Gulf emirate that acted as intermediary in the negotiations.
They would not be permitted to leave Qatar for a year, the source said, adding that their families had been flown from Afghanistan.
US officials referred to the release of the Taliban detainees as a transfer and said the restrictions placed on them included monitoring of their activities.
"We're committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and we are committed to closing Gitmo [the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba]. But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home," Obama commented.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he hoped the exchange might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants.
He denied accusations from some Republicans the swap resulted from US negotiations with terrorists, saying it had been worked out by the government of Qatar.
"We didn't negotiate with terrorists," Hagel said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press". "As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That's a normal process in getting your prisoners back."
Bergdahl, 28, was handed over at about 6 p.m. local time on Saturday, a senior official said. The US forces, who had flown in by helicopter, were on the ground very briefly, said the official, who would not specify the precise location.
The Afghan Taliban said earlier they had released Bergdahl near the border with Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan.
A US defense official said Bergdahl became emotional on his way to freedom, after being handed over to US special forces.
"Once he was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, 'SF?'" the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces. "The operators replied loudly: 'Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time.' And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down."
President Barack Obama announced the release, saying he had called Bergdahl's parents to let them know their son was free.
US defense officials said Bergdahl had arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and after receiving care would be transferred to another military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas.
Hours later, a second US defense official said the five Taliban detainees, now formally in Qatari custody, had departed the Guantanamo prison for foreign terrorism suspects. They were aboard a US military C-17 aircraft and were en route to the Gulf emirate.
Bergdahl, from Idaho, was the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war that began soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to force the Taliban - accused of sheltering al Qaeda militants - from power.
He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country. His release could be a national security boost for Obama, whose foreign policy has been widely criticized in recent months.
"Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years," Obama said in a statement.
FAMILY, HOMETOWN CELEBRATE
The Bergdahl family was in Washington when news of the release broke, US officials said, without giving details.
"We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!" Bob and Jami Bergdahl said in a statement released through the Idaho National Guard. "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son."
It was not yet known when he would be coming back to the United States. But in his hometown, Hailey, Idaho, news of the release prompted celebration.
"Once we heard about it. We were pretty excited," said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs Saturday morning and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works.