ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians held at the Guantanamo Bay prison are welcome to return home but if they face local charges they will be put on trial in Algeria, Justice Minister Tayeb Belaiz said in remarks published on Monday.
Belaiz said those who came home and were not wanted by the authorities would be free to return to their families, El Watan, Le Quotidien d’Oran and El Khabar newspapers reported him as saying.
Algerian officials who recent visited Guantanamo confirmed that 17 Algerians were held there, he said. Belaiz’s comments came less than a week after a senior U.S. official said he hoped a deal on repatriating the Algerian detainees could be reached soon.
“If these Algerians want to come back to the country, they would be welcome,” he was quoted as saying, adding any trials would be carried out under the Algerian penal code.
Hundreds of Algerian Islamist fighters joined the Afghan opposition to Soviet occupation in the 1980s and became involved with what is now al Qaeda in the 1990s.
Some returned home to participate in a mass Islamist uprising against army-backed rule in Algeria in the 1990s. The bloodshed has subsided sharply in recent years but Islamist rebels occasionally stage suicide bomb attacks in urban areas.
Suicide bombers killed at least 41 people on December 11 in twin attacks on U.N. offices and the Constitutional Court building in Algiers. The attack was claimed by al Qaeda’s North Africa wing.
The newspapers said Belaiz was non-committal on a suggestion by Washington that the United States and Algeria might soon sign an accord on the possible return of the Algerians from Guantanamo.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State David Welch told reporters on a visit to Algiers last week that Washington hoped soon to conclude an accord with Algeria on the matter.
Asked to comment, Belaiz said without elaborating that for the moment this was only at the stage of a “simple request” submitted by Washington.
Last year Belaiz said any return of the Guantanamo Algerians could only take place “without any condition or constraint”.
U.S. officials say some governments will not take custody of their citizens held at Guantanamo, others would not treat their citizens humanely and still others are not willing to provide security guarantees Washington believes are necessary.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said he would like to close the camp on Cuba, which now holds about 275 detainees, but calls it a necessary tool in the war on terrorism.
Human rights groups and foreign governments have said holding suspects for years without trial violates basic international legal standards.
Reporting William Maclean; Editing by Caroline Drees