Two long-held Algerian detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been returned to their homeland, the first such transfer since US President Barack Obama renewed his pledge to close the controversial jail.
The Pentagon announced Thursday that Nabil Said Hadjarab, 34, and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab, 36, were handed over to the government of Algeria, completing a process first outlined last month by the United States.
The US-run prison in Cuba, set up in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, still holds 164 detainees more than four years after Obama took office and vowed to shut it down.
The Algerian repatriations, however, come three months after Obama launched a new bid to close Guantanamo, saying the prison had become harmful to American interests, an expensive relic of a past age of counterterrorism tactics.
“The United States is grateful to the government of Algeria for its willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” said the Pentagon statement announcing the move.
“The United States coordinated with the government of Algeria to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
The transfers were the first from Guantanamo in almost a year. The most recent prior detainee to be released was Omar Khadr, who was repatriated to Canada in September 2012 after spending 10 years in the US-run prison.
According to WikiLeaks, Said Hadjarab was captured by Afghan forces on December 20, 2001 while trying to flee Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where he had been wounded in a battle with a US helicopter.
Ahmad Sayyab is also thought to have been captured while trying to flee Tora Bora and was intercepted by Pakistani authorities after crossing the border from Afghanistan. He was handed over to the Americans in January 2002.
The two men were seen as capable of presenting a medium risk against the United States if they were released, according to confidential files dated 2007 which were provided to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning, the US Army private sentenced to 35 years in jail last week after being convicted of espionage.
In March 2008, Algerian authorities said they were ready to bring home 17 nationals identified at the time and held at Guantanamo on charges of terrorism.
The vast majority of those held at Guantanamo, detained on Afghan battlefields or handed over by other countries, have never been charged or tried, and dozens have been taking part in a hunger strike in recent months.
More than half the detainees at Guantanamo have been cleared for release and face no charges in the United States.
Most of those cleared are Yemenis, whose release is blocked by a special moratorium imposed in the wake of the failed December 2009 plot to blow up a US passenger plane.
The plot was later traced back to Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, whose members include former Guantanamo inmates.
Obama’s efforts to close the prison in Cuba have also been blocked by a congressional ban on trying or jailing Guantanamo detainees on US soil.
The return of detainees to their home countries is subject to strict conditions, including the receiving state’s ability to monitor former inmates and prevent them from enlisting in armed groups.