Page last updated at 15:15 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

UK call to help close Guantanamo

US military guards escort a Guantanamo detainee (18 November 2008)
It is thought about 50 detainees have been cleared for release

The British government is pressing European countries to help resettle inmates from Guantanamo Bay detention centre, the Foreign Office has said.

US president-elect Barack Obama plans to close the camp in Cuba. Some 50 of the 250 inmates are said to have been cleared for release.

The Times newspaper reported Britain was preparing to accept detainees.

But the Foreign Office said it was "not pushing for a deal" to allow more Guantanamo inmates into the UK.

While Britain has not directly offered asylum, it said it accepted the US would need help closing the facility.

The US cannot repatriate all the detainees owing to the risk of mistreatment in their home countries, and it remains unknown what status they will be given in countries they are moved to.

Portugal has offered to take some and Germany is considering following suit.

'Legal difficulties'

The Foreign Office said: "We have made it clear that we think Guantanamo Bay should be closed.

"We recognise the legal, technical and other difficulties and that the US will require assistance from allies and partners to make this happen."

An article in the Times quotes a Downing Street official as saying Britain was putting in place a process to deal with detainees and decisions "would be for the home secretary on a case-by-case basis".

It also quotes a Whitehall source as saying: "Of course the Foreign Office wants to do it, they want to get off to a good start with Obama.

"This is the sort of thing that will require a Cabinet-level decision."

The Conservative Party demanded that Foreign Secretary David Miliband clarify the situation.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: "The Foreign Secretary must explain urgently whether this is true, how many Guantanamo inmates would be admitted to Britain, by what criteria they would be selected, and what assurances would be given about their behaviour in the future."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey said: "It's right that Britain plays its part in helping President-elect Obama close Guantanamo Bay if we are to be true to our promises to support justice.

"However, there are many questions that will need to be answered and reassurances given, just as America demanded of us before they were prepared to release UK citizens and residents."

It is understood some suspects will be tried on the US mainland, but others, who have been cleared for release, have not been accepted by their home countries or neutral countries.

For example, the US said a group of Muslim Uighurs from western China's Xinjiang province could be freed.

But the only country willing to take them is China, where the men fear they could face persecution as dissidents.

Britain has taken back all British nationals and also four inmates who were formerly British residents though not nationals.

The Foreign Office said it was continuing to press for the release of the two remaining former British residents.

Terrorism links

In an open letter in December, Portugal's foreign minister urged fellow EU states to accept Guantanamo detainees.

The German foreign ministry later said it was looking into the legal, political and practical implications of such a move.

BBC World Affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge said it was understood there were some divisions in Europe over the issue.

The matter may be raised at a meeting of the EU's general affairs and external relations council later this month.

The US has made no formal request to the EU, and there is unlikely to be one before the Obama administration takes office.

The president-elect has indicated that he wants the Guantanamo camp - where men suspected of links to terrorism or al-Qaeda have been held without trial as "unlawful enemy combatants" - to be closed within two years.

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