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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Friday it was not actively targeting any of the 65 detainees released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, but warned that if the freed prisoners returned to the fight, "they do it at their own peril."
Despite fierce U.S. protests, Karzai's government released the detainees on Thursday, in the latest sign of deteriorating ties between Washington and Kabul after more than 12 years of war.
The U.S. military has warned that some of them had killed both Afghans and foreign soldiers and now pose a fresh threat. At the same time, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the released prisoners "are not considered targets right now."
"There's not going to be an active targeting campaign ... to go after them. That said, if they choose to return to the fight, they become legitimate enemies and legitimate targets," Kirby told a Pentagon news conference.
The release of the detainees has stoked anger in the war-weary U.S. Congress, where Senator Lindsey Graham has said he would introduce a resolution condemning Karzai's actions and would seek to cut off some U.S. development aid in response.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shared the frustrations of many in Washington, Kirby said, adding that the defense chief understood that Karzai's actions "make it that much harder for many of those on the Hill in Congress to further support the Afghan missions."
"But again, this is a relationship that matters and a country that matters. And as frustrating as it can be at times, (Hagel) also believes we need to keep working at this," he added.
The detainees have become one more issue fueling tension in bilateral ties ahead of Afghanistan's April presidential election and the planned pullout of most foreign troops by the end of the year.
The Obama administration has been pressing Karzai for months to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington that would allow some U.S. troops to stay beyond that deadline.
It was unclear what effect the release might have on U.S. deliberations about what a possible post-2014 troop presence could look like or on its view of the stalled security pact.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by G Crosse