WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is negotiating with the South Pacific island nation of Palau to accept a group of Chinese Muslims held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.
The official said that senior State Department official Daniel Fried held talks last week with government officials in Palau and asked the small Pacific island to take in the Uighurs, who fear persecution if they are returned to China.
“Discussions are continuing with the Palau government but no final decision has yet been taken,” said the official, who declined to be named as the negotiations were at a delicate stage with the Palau government.
The official said Fried also asked Australia during a visit if it would be willing to take in Guantanamo detainees.
The United States has struggled to convince other countries to take in detainees who have been held at the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, complicating President Barack Obama’s quest to close the facility by next January.
Human rights groups and others have argued that the prison has undermined the reputation of the United States worldwide. Many prisoners have been held for years without charges, and rights groups say U.S. forces have resorted to torture.
A U.S. federal judge has ordered the group of 17 Chinese Muslim men of the Uighur minority to be freed in the United States, but an appeals court ruled in April that the judge did not have the authority to give such an order.
The Uighur detainees come from China’s largely Muslim Western province of Xinjiang. The U.S. government has cleared the Uighurs of terrorism allegations, but they remain stuck at Guantanamo Bay as U.S. officials mull where to send them.
The Obama administration is reviewing what to do with about 240 detainees still held at the prison, which was opened in 2002 by former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined comment on Fried’s travels last week to both Australia and Palau. Fried has been given the task of resettling detainees and lobbying countries to take them in so that the prison can be closed.
“As a matter of policy, we are not going to comment on our bilateral discussions with individual countries. It is really up to our partners to characterize the level of their involvement,” he said.
The United States on Tuesday transferred the first detainee from Guantanamo Bay to stand trial in a U.S. civilian court. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian held at Guantanamo since 2006, is accused of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa.
Editing by Will Dunham