updated 8/20/2007 8:47:10 PM ET 2007-08-21T00:47:10

New Zealand refused several times to take detainees the U.S. wanted to relocate from its Guantanamo Bay military prison, a senior official said Monday.

“In 2005 and early 2006, New Zealand declined several requests from the United States to resettle Guantanamo Bay detainees as refugees in New Zealand,” the Labor Department’s refugee services director Kevin Third said in a statement.

He was responding to questions after it was revealed that Washington had asked Canada to accept detainees of Uighur descent, because they were likely to be at risk if sent back to China.

Earlier this month, The Canadian Press reported that notes prepared for former Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in February indicate the Bush administration asked Canada to accept Guantanamo Bay detainees of Uighur decent from China’s Xinjiang region who were deemed to be no threat to national security.

Canada balked at the requests to provide asylum, according to the documents.

The U.S. was not prepared to resettle the men in its own territory, but could not send them back to China for fear they would face persecution.

'No desire to be the world's jailer'
The Pentagon has confirmed the U.S. government had talks with other countries over the possible transfer of detainees.

“The government has long stated that we have no desire to be the world’s jailer. To that end, we continue to discuss with other governments the possibility of transferring detainees once humane treatment and continuing threat concerns have been satisfactorily addressed by the receiving country,” Pentagon spokesman Greg Hicks told The Associated Press in an e-mail last week.

China takes a hard-line on dissidents from its oil-rich Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, also known as East Turkestan.

The 22 Uighur men were transferred to U.S. custody by Pakistani bounty hunters after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Several of the Muslim men maintain they were simply trying to escape Chinese persecution and were en route to Iran and Turkey to seek refugee status when they were picked up.

Pressure to close prison
The U.S. holds about 360 men at Guantanamo suspected of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban but that is about half the number held at its peak in 2003. It is struggling to empty it further.

Faced with rising international pressure to close the military prison in Cuba, the U.S. has identified dozens of detainees who can be released or transferred to other countries.

Third said New Zealand accepted a quota of 750 refugees each year that had been “prioritized” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Prior to accepting any quota refugees, the Department of Labor considers New Zealand’s capability to resettle particular groups and any support mechanisms available to assist this process,” he said.

“The UNHCR has not prioritized Guantanamo Bay detainees as a group for resettlement in New Zealand under this program,” Third added.

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