The Pacific island state of Palau said Wednesday it has agreed to resettle 17 Chinese Uighur detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is to close by year's-end. The Obama administration welcomed the statement, though saying details of the transfer are still being worked out.
The announcement by authorities in Palau, a Pacific island state east of the Philippines, would appear to resolve one of the thorniest resettlement issues stemming from the Obama administration's plan to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay facility by the end of the year.
Palau officials say the decision to temporarily resettle the men is based on human rights concerns. It comes at the same time as Palau and the United States are discussing the possibility of a $200-million aid package for the remote archipelago.
The Uighur detainees were part of a group of 22 members of the Chinese Muslim ethnic group taken into custody by American forces in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of the country following the 9/11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The Uighurs were cleared of wrongdoing four years ago, but they remained at the camp at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba out of concern they would face mistreatment if returned to China. Five of the Uighurs were accepted by Albania three years ago but efforts to resettle the others had been unsuccessful until this week.
Officials in Palau, a U.S.-administered territory until 1994, said they agreed to temporarily take in the 17 Uighurs for humanitarian reasons and because of the special relationship between the United States and the island nation of 20,000, which is heavily dependent on U.S. aid. Palau maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, not China.
At a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States is grateful to Palau for the gesture, though he said details of the transfer are still being worked out.
"We have been in discussions with Palau. We're very grateful to governments who have expressed an interest in being helpful, and we express our gratitude to the government of Palau as well. I think you've all seen the statement that came out of the government of Palau. But we're still involved in ongoing discussions, so it's premature for us to go into the details," he said.
Spokesman Kelly said former Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, named by the Obama administration as a special envoy for resettling Guantanamo detainees, held talks in Palau on the Uighurs' status in recent days.
He flatly rejected published reports linking Palau's acceptance of the Uighurs to a pending $200 million U.S. aid package to the island group. U.S. officials say the multi-year aid plan has been under negotiation for several years, long before any discussions on the detainees.
China has pressed for the return of the Uighurs, while denying they would face mistreatment if handed over. Advocates for the Uighurs, who mainly reside in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, say they have long suffered political and religious persecution there.
More than 30 other Guantanamo detainees no longer viewed by U.S. officials as enemy combatants must also be resettled in advance of the closure of the detention facility and special envoy Fried and other U.S. officials are engaged in wide-ranging diplomatic contacts on the issue.