12 Guantanamo detainees freed; captive count at 8-year low

December 19, 2009 

The United States freed a dozen men from Guantanamo this week -- including one of the last captives sent there by the Bush administration -- in a mission that dropped detainees off in Yemen, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

The dozen included six Yemenis, four Afghans and two Somali citizens. Their departure left the prison camp census at 198 on Saturday -- the first time the detention center dropped below 200 captives since February 2002.

Defense and Justice Department officials Saturday refused to comment on the massive transfer, a portion of which was reported by The Washington Post on Friday as a potential "prelude to the release of dozens more detainees to Yemen'' at a time of gathering Republican resistance to the White House plan to move other detainees to Thomson, Ill.

Reports from Somaliland, a breakaway region in northern Somalia that has its own autonomous government, identified the freed Somalis as Ismael Arale, 45, and Mohamed Suleiman Barre, 44.

Arale and Barre were processed by the Somaliland government and then released to rejoin their families in Hargeisa, the major city in Somaliland and capital of the region, according to a statement on the official Somaliland Web site.

The United States does not recognize the government in Somaliland and there were no official statements on how Arale and Barre arrived there. A local newspaper, the Somaliland Press, said they arrived aboard a jet provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, suggesting that the United States had released the men to the Red Cross in a third country.

Arale, who's been described as a document forger and Islamic jurist, was captured in Somalia in 2006 was one of the last detainees ever taken to Guantánamo.

The Pentagon said in a June 6, 2007, announcement that Arale ``exemplifies the genuine threat that the United States and other countries face throughout the world from dangerous extremists.''

It also noted, ``The detainees being held at Guantánamo have provided information essential to our ability to better understand how al Qaeda operates and thus to prevent future attacks.''

Arale and Barre had lawsuits seeking their release pending before federal courts in Washington, D.C., but judges had not ruled in either case.

Virtually all of the allegations against Arale were blacked out by the government in his court filing. The few sentences made public said that he lived in Pakistan from 2000 to 2006, worked there as an airline ticket agent for three years and had also been a student. The document says he was captured after he returned to Somalia in 2006, but by whom and under what circumstances are not clear.

The identities of the other 10 transferred detainees were not immediately known but Yemenis make up the largest single group of detainees at Guantánamo. Federal judges this week ordered three Yemenis released, saying they had been detained illegally. There are about 90 Yemenis at Guantánamo.

The United States has attempted for years to negotiate an agreement with Yemen that would allow for the repatriation of Yemenis at Guantánamo, many of whom have been cleared for release. But U.S. officials have been reluctant to allow them simply to go free in their homeland, which has a burgeoning al Qaeda presence and is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, whose father was Yemeni.

Based on the Pentagon's own documents, this week's transfer means there are no longer any Somali nationals at Guantánamo.

The Pentagon says it brought its last captive to Guantánamo on March, 14, 2008. He was identified him as Muhammed Rahim al Afghani.

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