Accra – Two men who were captured in Afghanistan and held at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for nearly 14 years without charge have been released and sent to the West African nation of Ghana for resettlement, officials said on Wednesday.
The two Yemenis are the first in a wave of 17 expected to be released this month as President Barack Obama's administration seeks to whittle down the population of low-level prisoners as part of a broader effort, opposed by many in Congress, to close the detention centre and move remaining detainees to the US There are now 105 held at the Navy base, including nearly 50 who have been cleared for release.
"The United States is grateful to the government of Ghana for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," said Navy Cmdr Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesperson.
Both of the men released on Wednesday, Mahmud Umar Muhammad Bin Atef and Khalid Muhammad Salih Al-Dhuby, were held as enemy combatants, accused of training with al-Qaeda and fighting with the Taliban. They had been cleared for release in 2009, but the US won't send Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen because of instability there and officials had to find another country to accept them.
Ghana, which has not taken in any Guantanamo prisoners previously, suggested their stay might be temporary. "We have indicated our readiness to accept them for a period of two years, after which they may leave the country," Ghana's foreign ministry said in a statement.
The men, who are in their 30s, followed similar paths, according to US military records. They grew up in Saudi Arabia, were recruited into militant Islam and went off to train and fight in Afghanistan.
Military records say Bin Atef was wounded in a bloody uprising while he was held as a Northern Alliance prisoner near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, a battle in which a CIA officer was killed. He was also a key leader of a violent clash between guards and detainees at Guantanamo in 2007.
His lawyer, George Clarke, noted that Bin Atef was later a block leader at Guantanamo, serving as a liaison between guards and detainees. "Do they think he is a threat? No," Clarke said. "He's a positive character. He's a very smart guy and I really wish him the best."
The men, like many other prisoners freed from Guantanamo and forced to start new lives in unfamiliar places, will face a challenge in Ghana, Clarke said. Nevertheless, Bin Atef at least was eager for the opportunity to find a job and start a family, he said.
"He wants to get the hell out of Guantanamo," said Clarke, a lawyer from Washington who has been representing prisoners at Guantanamo since 2005. "I don't think there's a detainee there now who wouldn't take any place."
Obama came into office pledging to close the detention centre but has been thwarted by Congress, which has barred sending any prisoner to the US for any reason and placed restrictions on sending them elsewhere. Al-Dhuby and Bin Atef are the first Guantanamo prisoners resettled in sub-Sahara Africa.
In addition to taking in the Yemenis, Ghana said two other people from Rwanda who were tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda will also be allowed to settle in the country. The foreign ministry said the two were part of a group of people who had been acquitted, or sentenced and served time, but didn't want to be resettled in Rwanda.
The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda closed its proceedings in December after nearly 20 years of pursuing and prosecuting "persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law," during the 1994 Rwanda genocide which killed more than 800 000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Ghana's foreign ministry added that the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East means it will also provide refuge for some displaced Syrians with relatives in Ghana, but didn't specify how many.
It said that all those allowed into the country will have their activities monitored.
"We are aware of the need to protect the security and safety of our own residents and are taking all the necessary steps to make sure that is done," the statement said.