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WASHINGTON, May 31, (Agencies): US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held for nearly five years by the Taleban after being captured in Afghanistan, has been released and is now in US custody after years of on and off negotiations, US officials said on Saturday As part of Bergdahl’s release, the United States is turning over five Taleban detainees at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of Qatar, the officials said. Bergdahl’s freedom followed a renewed round of indirect US-Taleban talks in recent months, with Qatar acting as intermediary, the officials said.

President Barack Obama announced the release, saying he had called Bergdahl’s parents to let them know. US special operations forces took custody of Bergdahl in a non-violent exchange with Taleban members in eastern Afghanistan, the officials said, adding that he was believed to be in good condition.

He was now undergoing a medical examination in Afghanistan. The exchange took place at about 6 p.m. local time on Saturday, which was at 10:30 a.m. Washington time, a senior official said. Bergdahl, who is from Idaho, was the only known missing US soldier in the Afghan war that was launched soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to dislodge the Taleban from power.

He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country. “Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years,” Obama said in a statement. “On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal.”

The Bergdahl family was in Washington when news of the release broke, a senior US defense official said, without giving details. Obama announced this week that he would keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan, mostly to train Afghan forces, after NATO combat operations cease at the end of 2014. The last soldiers, aside from a small presence at US diplomatic posts, will leave at the end of 2016. Bergdahl’s release could be a national security boost for Obama, whose foreign policy has come under widespread criticism in recent months. But some members of Congress have in the past criticized the potential release of the five Taleban detainees, particularly Mohammed Fazl, a so-called “high-risk” detainee held at Guantanamo prison since early 2002. Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.

Reuters first reported the potential swap of Bergdahl for the five Taleban detainees in December 2011. Bergdahl’s release on Saturday was the result of years of and off negotiations that a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said revived last November when the Taleban signaled it wanted to resume talks on prisoners. No direct US-Taleban talks were involved, officials said, and messages were past via Qatari officials. The final stage of negotiations, which took place in the Qatari capital of Doha, began one week ago, the US officials said.

In his statement, Obama thanked Qatar for its role in Bergdahl’s release, as well as the Afghan government. The US defense official said Bergdahl was able to walk and became emotional on his way to freedom. “Once the was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, ‘SF?’” the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces. “The operators replied loudly, ‘Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.’And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down.” Bergdahl’s release was celebrated back home. “We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” Bob and Jami Bergdahl said in a statement released through Idaho National Guard. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son.” It was not yet known when he would be coming back to the United States.

But in his hometown, Hailey, Idaho, news of the release prompted celebration. “Once we heard about it. We were pretty excited,” said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs Saturday morning and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works. “We want to let people know he’s free. “ Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling in Asia, said in a statement that Bergdahl would be given “all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family.” Hagel said Qatar would take steps to ensure that US national security would not be endangered by taking in the five Taleban detainees.

The five Guantanamo detainees were still at the base as of Saturday morning, but were being transferred into the custody of Qatari officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year. Obama and the emir of Qatar spoke last week about the conditions of the release, which have been codified in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, officials said. The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison.

They are believed to be: Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taleban deputy minister of intelligence Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taleban commander in the northern city of Mazare- Sharif when the Taleban fought US forces in late 2001 Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taleban positions including interior minister and had direct ties to Taleban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taleban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taleban’s communications office in Kabul Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taleban sought to consolidate their control over the country.


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