The Obama administration is nearing agreement with the remote Pacific island nation of Palau to resettle a group of Chinese Muslims now held at the US Guantanamo Bay detention center, The Associated Press has learned.
As they attempt to fulfill President Barack Obama's order to close the Guantanamo facility by early next year, administration officials are looking to Palau to accept some or all of the 17 Uighur detainees due to fierce congressional opposition to releasing them on US soil, officials said.
A federal judge last year ordered them released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not "enemy combatants." But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since. Thus far no country has agreed to take any of the 17 individuals.
Three US officials familiar with the situation said, however, that Palau is now a prime candidate for their relocation. Palau, with a population of about 20,000, is an archipelago of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets that is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
One senior official said Palau had indicated it is willing in principle to accept some Uighurs but that specific numbers had not yet been determined and a deal was not yet concluded. "We have spoken with the Palauans, but neither they nor we have made any decisions," the official said. That official and two others spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks.
Asked Tuesday about discussions with Palau on the Uighurs, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to comment beyond saying the US is "working closely with our friends and allies regarding resettlement" of detainees at Guantanamo. He said the department would not comment on talks with individual countries. Two of the officials said the US was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year. The US will not send the Uighurs back to China for fear they will be tortured or executed. Beijing says Uighur insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in China's far west and wants those held at Guantanamo to be returned to China. In 2006, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo but has since balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China. Palau is one of a handful of mainly Pacific island, Latin American and African countries that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The State Department said last week that Daniel Fried, the career diplomat who was named earlier this year by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to oversee Guantanamo's closure, had visited Palau but offered no details on his mission. Fried has been negotiating with third countries to accept many of the Guantanamo detainees.
State Department spokesman P J Crowley said Fried had visited Australia and Palau as part of a tour of the Pacific. The three officials said Fried had been discussing the disposition of Uighurs. Australia has already twice rejected US appeals to resettle the Uighurs, but its foreign minister said late last month it would consider a new request to take in 10 Uighurs. The previous requests were turned down on immigration and security criteria and it is not clear if a new Australian review of the Uighurs would have different results.
Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller declined to comment and an official at the Embassy of Palau in Washington said he had no information about the negotiations.
A former US trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 when it signed a Free Compact of Association with the US. While it is independent, it relies heavily on US aid and is dependent on the United States for its defense. Native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without passports or visas.