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Whereabouts of former U.S. detainee unknown: lawyers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A man who the Obama administration transferred against his will from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to his native Algeria has gone missing, a U.S.-based rights group involved in the case said on Wednesday.

The transfer of Abdul Aziz Naji to Algeria, announced by the Pentagon on Monday, brought the number of remaining detainees at Guantanamo to 178, down from 245 when U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year.

Naji’s case has been closely watched because he is the first detainee to be involuntarily repatriated by the Obama administration, according to Human Rights Watch.

Naji, who has been held at Guantanamo since 2002, told his lawyers he did not want to return to Algeria because he feared persecution from the Algerian government and Islamist militants there.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many Guantanamo detainees, said Naji’s lawyers and family have been unable to locate or contact him since he was repatriated by the U.S. government.

“His whereabouts and well-being in Algeria are currently unknown,” it said in a statement. “Mr. Naji has disappeared since his return to Algeria, and is presumably being held in secret detention by Algerian state security forces.”

Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer with the center, said: “We know that he’s been transferred. But as for where he is ... we don’t know. It’s very concerning.”

Other former detainees sent to Algeria were taken into custody for questioning by authorities upon their return but subsequently released, rights groups say.

The U.S. government had alleged that Naji belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group in Pakistan, but the Center for Constitutional Rights said he has “long been cleared of any connection with terrorism.”

The Pentagon said the transfer was coordinated with the government of Algeria to ensure it took place under “appropriate security measures.”

Before Naji’s involuntarily return, 10 Algerians had agreed to go back, Human Rights Watch said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking of the 10 repatriated to Algeria, said, “None, in our view, has appeared to be mistreated.”

Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Todd Eastham