The lastUS prisoner of war from America's waning war in Afghanistan was handed over to US Special Operations forces in on Saturday, in a dramatic swap for five Taliban detainees who were released from Guantanamo Bay prison and flown to Qatar.
Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held for nearly five years by Afghan militants and his release followed years of on-and-off negotiations.
President Barack Obama hailed the release in a brief appearance with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden, saying that "while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten."
Bergdahl was on his way to an American military hospital in Germany, a US defense official said. Another defense official said it was expected that after treatment in Germany he would be transferred to a military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas. US special forces took custody of Bergdahl in a non-violent exchange with 18 Taliban members in eastern Afghanistan, seniorUS officials said, adding that he was believed to be in good condition. Before leaving for Germany, he received medical care at Bagram Air Base, the mainUS base in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl, 28, was handed over about 6 pm local time on Saturday, a senior official said. The US forces, who had flown in by helicopter, were on the ground very briefly, said the officials, who would not specify the precise location of the handover.
A US defense official said Bergdahl was able to walk and became emotional on his way to freedom. "Once he 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."
Hours later, a second US defense official said the five Taliban detainees, now formally in Qatari custody, had departed the Guantanamo prison for foreign terrorism sUSpects. They were aboard a US military C-17 aircraft and en route to the Gulf emirate.
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 Taliban -accused of sheltering al Qaeda militants - 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.
TOUGH RECOVERY PROCESS
His recovery after long years in captivity could be difficult. At the White House, Bergdahl's father began his words speaking a Muslim prayer and said his son was having difficulty speaking English. He asked for patience from the media as the family helped him readjust.
A US defense official said Bergdahl would continue treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, including the start of his "reintegration process." "That includes time for him to tell his story, decompress, and to reconnect with his family through telephone calls and video conferences," the official said.
Bergdahl's release could be a national security boost for Obama, whose foreign policy has been widely criticised in recent months. A US official said there were hopes the deal could build confidence and lead to additional reconciliation discussions with the Taliban. "This has been the hope all along," he said. The official said he did not think there was a link with Obama's announcement on Tuesday of a troop withdrawal timetable. "This discussion predates the decision on troops," he said. "This is just a matter of things coming together with the help of the Qataris and the Taliban realizing that we were serious."
But some members of Congress have worried in the past over the potential release of the five Taliban detainees, particularly Mohammed Fazl, a "high-risk" detainee held at Guantanamo since early 2002. Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the five men as Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq. Pentagon documents released by the WikiLeaks organisation said all five were sent to Guantanamo in 2002, the year the detention facility opened. They were classified as "high-risk" detainees "likely to pose a threat" to the United States, its interests and allies.
While welcoming Bergdahl's release, Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the HoUSe of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said: "I am extremely troubled, however, that the United States negotiated with terrorists and agreed to swap five senior Taliban leaders who are responsible for the deaths of many Americans."
US officials referred to the release of the Taliban detainees as a transfer and noted they would be subject to certain restrictions in Qatar. One of the officials said that would include a minimum one-year ban on them traveling outside of Qatar as well as monitoring of their activities. Rogers said he had "little confidence" in such assurances.
Under US law, the Obama administration is supposed to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the transfer of any detainee from Guantanamo. In this case, a US official said such notification was made on Saturday after Bergdahl was in US custody - a move that angered some lawmakers. Howard McKeon, chairman of the HoUSe Armed Services Committee, and James Inhofe, senior Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama "clearly violated laws" requiring him to give 30 days' notification.
But a senior US official said the administration had seized on a chance to save Bergdahl. "The administration determined that given these unique and exigent circumstances, such a transfer should go forward notwithstanding the notice requirement," the official said. Bergdahl's freedom followed a renewed round of indirect US-Taliban talks in recent months, with Qatar acting as intermediary, the officials said. It also came just days after another step in the winding down of the war.
Obama announced this week he would keep 9,800US troops in Afghanistan, mostly to train Afghan forces, after NATO combat operations end at the end of 2014. The last soldiers, aside from a small presence atUS diplomatic posts, will leave at the end of 2016.
FAMILY, HOMETOWN CELEBRATE
The Bergdahl family was in Washington, DC, when informed by Obama of the release. The parents said in a statement they were "joyful and relieved," adding: "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son."
Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, also began celebrating. "Once we heard about it. We were pretty excited," said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs on Saturday and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works. The Afghan Taliban confirmed on Saturday it had freed Bergdahl. "This is true. After several rounds of talks for prisoners' swap, we freed US soldier and our dear guest in exchange of five commanders held in Guantanamo Bay since 2002," a senior Taliban commander said.
The Taliban commander said Bergdahl had mostly been held in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan after what he termed his "dramatic" kidnapping from Afghanistan's Paktika province in June 2009.
Reuters first reported the potential deal involving the five Taliban detainees in December 2011.
A second senior US official said the negotiations for Bergdahl's release revived last November when the Taliban signaled it wanted to resume talks on prisoners. But it was unclear why the Taliban moved now to conclude a deal that Washington had been seeking for years.
While US and Taliban envoys have met directly in the past, there were no directUS-Taliban contacts during the most recent negotiations, US officials said. Messages were passed via Qatari officials.
The final stage of negotiations, which took place in the Qatari capital, Doha, began one week ago, theUS officials said. Obama and Qatar's emir spoke on Tuesday and reaffirmed the security conditions under which the Taliban members would be placed, they said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Mark Hosenball, Will Dunham, David Brunnstrom, Elvina Nawaguna and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Alex Richardson)