January 28, 2010 / 12:44 PM / 10 years ago

Guantanamo should close within 3 years: envoy

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama should be able to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay during his first term, despite missing his original deadline, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.

In this photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, a guard stands in a cell block at Camp 5 detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool

U.S. special envoy in charge of closing Guantanamo, Daniel Fried, said Washington was in talks with several governments about hosting more detainees from the military prison in Cuba.

“Yes,” he said, when asked whether closing Guantanamo in the three remaining years of Obama’s term was realistic. “I am confident it will be closed under President Obama’s first term,” he told reporters in Brussels.

“That’s one of the reasons we are here. We wanted to brief our European colleagues about our progress,” he said after meetings with European Union officials to drum up support for resettlement in the bloc.

Fried said no new deadline has been set, but the U.S. administration wanted “to do as much as we can, as soon as we can, to close it.”

Obama had promised to close jail, which has drawn international condemnation, during his first year in office. But that deadline passed this month and 192 detainees remain, with fewer than 50 having left Cuba since Obama took office.

About 10 EU member states have already accepted detainees, including Slovakia which took in three this week.

A big challenge to closing the prison is the 91 Yemeni detainees. While some have been cleared to go home, Obama cannot release them because militant al Qaeda cells are active in Yemen and U.S. officials fear those released could join the group.

Some European governments have been wary of agreeing to transfers because of security concerns, but Fried said he was happy with the pace of resettlement of detainees in Europe. “I am not disappointed. I am heartened,” he said.

The jail was opened by the Bush administration in 2002 after the September 11, 2001 attacks to house foreign terrorism suspects.

Freed detainees have been resettled or sent back to their home countries, while others face trial. More than a hundred others have been cleared for transfer.

Fewer than 50 face continued detention indefinitely on security grounds, a Department of Justice official traveling with Fried said.

Under an agreement with the EU, the U.S. shares information about detainees cleared for release and they are transferred on a case-by-base basis.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last month the U.S. government’s purchase of a prison in Illinois to hold some Guantanamo detainees would help to close the facility in Cuba, perhaps by the summer.

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