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A deal to free a US soldier in exchange for five Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was sped up as the soldier’s health deteriorated, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday, as Kabul voiced its objections to the “illegal” swap.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, arrived at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany on Sunday.
Hagel said that Bergdahl’s “safety and health” were increasingly at risk and that US officials had to act fast to secure his release.
“We believed that the information we had, the intelligence we had, was such that Sergeant Bergdahl’s safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particularly his health [was] deteriorating,” Hagel said, according to a Pentagon transcript.
“It was our judgement that if we could find an opening, and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life,” Hagel said.
The only US soldier held by the Taliban, Bergdahl was handed over to US special forces Saturday evening local time in an area of eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.
The handover followed secret and indirect negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, issued a rare statement praising the release of the five Guantanamo detainees as a “big victory”.
Qatar will take custody of the five Afghan detainees. Under the conditions of their release, all five will be banned from travelling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
Several dozen US special operations forces flew into Afghanistan by helicopter to make the transfer with approximately 18 members of the Taliban.
According to a senior defense official travelling with Hagel in Singapore on Saturday, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote the letters ”SF?” on a paper plate – asking the troops if they were US special forces.
”Yes. We’ve been looking for you for a long time,” they shouted back over the roar of the rotors.
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down.
All of the US officials requested anonymity in discussing the details of Bergdahl’s transfer.
Originally from Hailey, Idaho, Bergdahl had been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He is thought to have been captured by members of the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to US troops throughout the war.
The Haqqani 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.
Since his capture in 2009, Bergdahl has appeared in several Taliban videos.
Kabul objects to ‘illegal’ swap
Officials in Afghanistan have vehemently objected to the prisoner exchange, with a foreign ministry statement saying that it “goes against the laws”.
Under international law “no government can hand over a country’s citizens to a third country as a prisoner”, the ministry said, adding that Kabul is “strongly protesting” the move.
“The government of Afghanistan … calls for the release of its citizens so that they can, in accordance with international laws, enjoy their freedom,” it said.
In announcing Bergdahl’s release on Saturday, US President Barack Obama said that his recovery “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield”.
Obama also expressed his “deepest appreciation” to the Emir of Qatar “for his assistance in helping to secure our soldier’s return”.
But not all US officials were happy about the exchange, with some Republicans questioning whether the negotiations with the Taliban had essentially “put a price” on US soldiers.
“Have we just put a price on other US soldiers? What does this tell terrorists – that if you capture a US soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after?” asked Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, in an interview with the ABC news program “This Week”.
Two Republican lawmakers, Representative Howard McKeon of California and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Obama violated US law when he approved the prisoner exchange without notifying Congress 30 days in advance as required.
The White House said in response that US officials were facing “unique and exigent circumstances” that prompted them to go ahead with the transfer despite the requirement to inform Congress.
(Geo Urdu with FRANCE 24, AP, REUTERS and AFP)