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Row erupts over Guantanamo deal

Uighurs in Guanatamo detention centre (file photograph)
The UK expressed concern about the transfer of the Uighurs

A diplomatic spat has broken out over Bermuda's acceptance of four Chinese Muslim Uighurs released from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

Britain has told Bermuda, which is one of its overseas territories, it should have consulted London before agreeing to resettle the Uighurs.

The four were among a group handed over to US forces in Afghanistan, but later found not to be "enemy combatants".

In London the opposition demanded an explanation from the foreign secretary.

Beijing has demanded the return of all Uighurs held by the US forces to China.

The four who were sent to Bermuda were part of a group of 17 Uighurs still at Guantanamo.

Earlier in the week the Pacific island of Palau had also agreed to take the detainees.

We did talk to them before the Uighurs got on the plane
State department official on communication between the US and the UK


US officials said Washington would consult the government of Bermuda regularly on the status of the men, who would not be allowed to enter the US without permission.

But the Foreign Office in London expressed its concern at Bermuda's decision to accept the Uighurs.

"The Bermuda government consider this to be a matter regarding their day-to-day responsibility for immigration," a statement said.

"We have underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted the UK on whether this falls within their competence or is a foreign affairs or security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility."

Britain is now helping Bermuda conduct a security assessment of the men. The Foreign Office noted that the four did not have travel documents and so would not be able to fly to the UK.

But shadow foreign secretary William Hague has demanded an explanation from the Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Bermuda
Bermuda agreed to accept four former detainees of Guantanamo Bay

He said: "It is astonishing that an agreement of such significance between the US and Bermuda, involving the resettlement of four former terrorist suspects to a British Overseas Territory, could have taken place without a ripple reaching Whitehall.

"The UK is responsible for Bermuda's external relations, defence and security and for appointing its governor. Yet the FCO appears to have had no idea that these discussions were taking place.

"This can only confirm the perception that the Labour government has been so busy with its own internal turmoil that it has lost grip of running the country."

'Let freedom ring'

A state department official in Washington said the US had dealt directly with Bermuda over the issue, on the basis that it was talking to the island's British-appointed governor.

Pressed on whether the US had told the British government, the unnamed official was quoted as saying: "We did talk to them before the Uighurs got on the plane."

The four arrived on a charter flight early on Thursday in Bermuda, a chain of islands lying off America's eastern seaboard.

One of them, Abdul Nasser, thanked Bermuda in a statement released through his lawyer: "Today you have let freedom ring."

CHINA'S UIGHURS
Map
Ethnically Turkic Muslims, mainly in Xinjiang
Made bid for independent state in 1940s
Sporadic violence in Xinjiang since 1991
Uighurs worried about Chinese immigration and erosion of traditional culture

Five Uighurs who were transferred to Albania in 2006 have not been engaged in criminal or terrorist activities since, the US government said.

China repeated its demand for the return of all Chinese detainees hours before Bermuda accepted the Uighurs.

The US should "stop handing over terrorist suspects to any third country", foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Palau, a former US trust territory, grants diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, not China.

On Thursday, the president of Palau told the Associated Press news agency that the island had agreed to take in the Uighers because of its tradition of hospitality - and not because of a reported offer of $200m (£121m) in aid and other assistance from the US.

"We did agree to accept them due to the fact that they have become basically homeless and need to find a place of refuge and freedom," said President Johnson Toribiong.

The US has been reluctant to send the Uighurs back to China for fear they will be tortured or executed.

More than eight million mainly Muslim Uighurs live in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, a vast area of western China that borders Central Asia.

Beijing says Uighur insurgents are leading an Islamist separatist movement, recognised as a terrorist group by the UN.

US President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo detention centre to be closed by early next year.

Correspondents say officials are having difficulty finding governments willing to accept the remaining detainees, while at home they face stiff resistance to the idea of Guantanamo detainees on being transferred to US soil.



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