WASHINGTON The Obama administration has sent six Uighur Chinese detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay to the Pacific island nation of Palau, the Justice Department said on Saturday.
China had demanded that the Uighurs be returned there but the U.S. government has said it could not do so because they would face persecution, and it has searched for months for a nation willing to accept them.
The choice of Palau is likely to infuriate China as the island is one of only 23 countries that recognize Taiwan over Beijing. Under its "one China" policy, Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and insists on eventual unification, by force if necessary.
The transfer leaves 215 detainees at the detention camp that President Barack Obama has pledged to close by January 22, although political and legal hurdles are making it difficult for his administration to meet that goal.
"As we near the completion of our review of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, we will continue to work closely with the Department of State to implement transfer decisions, and we are grateful to the Republic of Palau for its assistance in the resettlement of these individuals," Matthew Olsen, head of the Guantanamo Review Task Force, said in a statement.
The Obama administration is set to decide by mid-November which of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo will face military commissions or charges in U.S. criminal courts. Some of the 215 detainees are expected to be released.
The Justice Department said the six sent to Palau had been cleared for release by the Bush administration after deciding not to treat them as enemy combatants anymore. They were identified as Ahmad Tourson, Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman, Edham Mamet, Anwar Hassan, Dawut Abdurehim and Adel Noori.
The Uighurs, who come from China's largely Muslim far-west region of Xinjiang, were swept up by the U.S. government during the Afghanistan war launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Palau has agreed to take up to 12 Uighurs, seven still remain at the controversial Guantanamo prison which was set up by the Bush administration to house terrorism suspects. Four other Uighurs were moved to Bermuda in June.
The departures of the Uighurs occurred after the Supreme Court -- rejecting the administration's position -- said on October 20 that it would hear an appeal by the Uighurs, who argue that they should be released in the United States.
However, Obama signed into law legislation Congress passed barring the release of any detainees from Guantanamo into the United States.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel said Palau has agreed to provide a temporary home for the three Uighurs they represented while the United States continues to search for a country where the men can be permanently resettled.
"President Obama has achieved a major milestone in his effort to close Guantanamo, but the prison cannot be shut down until other countries agree to resettle those detainees who are unable to return to their home countries," J. Wells Dixon of the center said in a statement.
Since Obama took office, a total of 25 detainees have been sent from Guantanamo to countries overseas and one detainee has been transferred to New York to stand trial on terrorism charges.
"There is an urgent need for countries like Australia and Germany to offer permanent refuge for not only the Uighurs temporarily resettled in Palau or still detained at Guantanamo, but also detainees from countries like Algeria, Libya and Tajikistan," he said.
"The men are happy at long last to be free," one of the lawyers, Eric Tirschwell, said. "They have already begun learning English and look forward to becoming productive members of the Palau community, as the United States continues its diplomatic efforts on their behalf."
(Editing by Eric Beech and Nick Macfie)