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Afghanistan: Jailed US soldier freed

01 June 2014, 14:37

Washington — The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to US special forces by the Taliban on Saturday evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. In a statement, the Taliban said Bergdahl was handed over on the outskirts of Khost province.

Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.

"While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten," President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, where he was joined by Bergdahl's parents. "The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."

The handover followed indirect negotiations between the US and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.

According to a senior defence official travelling with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the letters "SF?" — asking the troops if they were special operations forces.

Held since June 2009

They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: "Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time."

Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down and cried.

Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since 30 June 2009. The network operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to US troops in the war. The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.

Officials said Bergdahl was transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main US base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations. A defence official said he would be sent to Germany for additional care before eventually returning to the United States.

The defence official said Bergdhal was tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Centre where he would be reunited with his family. The military was working on Saturday to connect Bergdahl with his family over the telephone or by video conference.

Several dozen US special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.

Trouble speaking English

The official added that the US still believes that Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.

All the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl's transfer.

Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, had been in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received a call on Saturday from Obama informing them that their son had been freed.

As they stood with Obama hours after their son's release, Bob Bergdahl, who grew a long, thick beard to honour his son, said Bowe Bergdahl was having trouble speaking English after his rescue. The elder Bergdahl had worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son's captors, and delivered him a message in that language.

Switching back to English, he said "the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended."

The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave or desertion. A senior US official told The Associated Press on Saturday that the Army would make the decision on any charges but that the feeling at the moment was that Bergdahl had suffered enough. The official was not authorised to discuss the matter by name and requested anonymity.

In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted emails Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America's mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in the US Army's mission there and was considering desertion. Bergdahl told his parents he was "ashamed to even be American".

The Associated Press could not independently authenticate the emails.

- AP


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