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Guantanamo Uighurs sent to Palau

US military guards escort a Guantanamo detainee (6 December 2006)
The US has 50 to 60 detainees whom it has been unable to repatriate

Six Chinese Uighur prisoners from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have been transferred to the Pacific island nation of Palau, officials say.

Lawyers for three of them said they had "arrived to freedom" early on Sunday.

Palau agreed in June to take up to a dozen Uighurs who were captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan but not later classified as "enemy combatants".

China wants them to be returned there, but the US says it cannot repatriate them due to the risk of mistreatment.

Beijing has frequently cracked down on Uighur dissidents, who it accuses of seeking an independent homeland in the western province of Xinjiang.

Four other Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda earlier this year, and another five went to Albania in 2006.

'Safe from oppression'

A law firm representing three of the six Uighurs released from Guantanamo on Saturday confirmed that they had arrived safely at their new home in the main town of Koror.

The men are happy at long last to be free
Eric Tirschwell
Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

"These men want nothing more than to live peaceful, productive lives in a free, democratic nation safe from oppression by the Chinese," Eric Tirschwell of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel told the Associated Press.

"Thanks to Palau, which has graciously offered them a temporary home, they now have that chance," he added.

Mr Tirschwell said the men had already begun learning English and looked forward to become productive members of the community.

The men will live in a three-storey building which is a five-minute walk from Koror's only mosque, one of two on the island.

The President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, told the BBC that the Uighers would be given a temporary home for as long as two years.

"Initially, they will be attending a crash course in the English language and of our culture and history for a couple of months. We'll interview them to find out about their skills, and then try to place them where they'll be gainfully employed," he said.

Palau has a Muslim population of about 500, mostly migrant workers from Bangladesh. Many face being deported due to lapsed work permits.

Palau

In addition to the six Uighurs who arrived on Sunday, the island nation has offered to take six of the seven others still being held at Guantanamo. One did not receive an invitation because of concerns about his mental health.

The American defence department decided last year that the Uighur detainees were not enemy combatants, but they were refused the right to settle in the US. China has demanded that the men be extradited but the US says they would face persecution.

Palau, a former US trust territory, is an archipelago of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets that is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 800km (500 miles) east of the Philippines.

The tiny nation has retained close ties with Washington since independence in 1994 when it signed a Compact of Free Association with the US. It relies heavily on the US for aid and defence, and does not have diplomatic relations with China.

The latest departures from Guantanamo occurred after the US Supreme Court, rejecting the government's position, said it would hear an appeal by the Uighurs, who have argued that they should be released onto US soil.

There are now 215 detainees remaining at the prison camp, which President Barack Obama has pledged to close by 22 January.



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