March 21, 2014 / 5:14 PM / 4 years ago

Uruguay asks U.S. to free Cubans in return for Guantanamo transfer

MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguay has asked the United States to free Cuban prisoners as a gesture in return for the South American country agreeing to accept detainees from the much-criticized Guantanamo detention center, President Jose Mujica said on Friday.

Uruguay's President Jose Mujica delivers a speech after a meeting with Chile's President-elect Michelle Bachelet (not pictured) in Santiago, March 10, 2014. REUTERS/Cristobal Saavedra

Uruguay said on Thursday that at Washington’s request it would take some inmates from the U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been used since 2002 to hold people captured after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Mujica said in his weekly radio broadcast on Friday that he had asked for Cubans on U.S. soil to be released in exchange.

“We’re not embarrassed to say that we asked the North American government if they would please do what they could because those two or three Cuban prisoners, they have been there many years, a way is being sought to free them, because that is also shameworthy,” said Mujica.

The comment was most likely a reference to three Cuban intelligence agents in U.S. jail. The three, plus two others who have since been released, were convicted in 2001 of spying and are considered heroes in Cuba.

A senior Obama administration official said that while the United States considers Mujica a “valuable partner” with whom it consults regularly, “we are not aware of any requests along the lines of what is being reported.”

Uruguayan government officials declined further comment.

Mujica, a 78-year-old ex-guerrilla who was himself in prison for more than a decade during his country’s dictatorship, added that the arrival of the Guantanamo detainees was “far from finalized” but that they would be free men in Uruguay.

The Obama administration wants to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and Mujica said that the U.S. was negotiating transfers with 18 countries.

Uruguayan media reported that the detainees were likely four Syrians and one Pakistani, although the Uruguayan government has not specified the number or nationalities of the prisoners that it has agreed to take.

U.S. officials on Thursday did not comment on the details of negotiations, but confirmed that Washington had discussed the closure of Guantanamo with Uruguay and other governments.

Reporting by Malena Castaldi, Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Grant McCool

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