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The United States released four Guantanamo Bay prisoners to their home country of Afghanistan on Friday, the first such transfer to the war-torn country since 2009, the Department of Defense announced Saturday. Defense officials said Shawali Khan, Khi Ali Gul, Abdul Ghani and Mohammed Zahir – held for more than a decade – were approved for transfer by the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, which considers security issues and other factors in intensive reviews of possible releases.
A senior administration official told NBC News that the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, specifically requested the release of the four men. "This repatriation reflects the Defense Department's continued commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo in a responsible manner," said Paul Lewis, the Defense Department's special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo. The transfer "demonstrates Afghan sovereignty and U.S. trust in the strength of Afghan government institutions," said a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The statement added that officials were confident that the Afghan administration has the "ability to mitigate any threats these individuals may pose."
The move is the latest in a series of prisoner transfers as President Obama tries to reduce the number of those held at Guantanamo and works toward his goal of closing the detention center. Obama vowed as a presidential candidate to close Guantanamo. The remaining number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay is 132. The senior administration official said the men and others in the facility “should not have been detained in the first place,” and more transfers are expected in the coming weeks.
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— Elisha Fieldstadt and Shawna Thomas, with The Associated Press