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US defends swap with Taliban

Five years a captive from the Afghanistan war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in a swap stirring sharp debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.

U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl's health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. Republicans said the deal could place U.S. troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight — one called it "shocking." Another, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said of the five detainees: "These are the hardest of the hard core."

Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defence Secretary Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special operations forces that retrieved Bergdahl, who officials said was the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in that conflict. Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke of the excitement that spread through U.S. ranks when the sergeant's release was confirmed. "You almost got choked up," he said. "It was pretty extraordinary."

Tireless campaigners for their son's freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl planned a news conference Sunday in their hometown of Hailey, Idaho. The Taliban handed Bergdahl over to special operations forces in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, U.S. officials said. In a statement on its website, the Taliban put the location on the outskirts of Khost province.

Bergdahl, 28, was taken to Bagram Air Field for medical evaluations, then transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center before he is reunited with his family in the U.S., probably at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, officials said.

Officials did not offer details about Bergdahl's health. National security adviser Susan Rice said he had lost considerable weight and faced an "acute" situation. Yet she said he appeared to be "in good physical condition" and "is said to be walking."

Questions persisted, too, about the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture; Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters "will be dealt with later," Hagel said.

Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: "This is a happy day. We got one of our own back." It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.

In weighing the swap, U.S. officials decided that it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the U.S. sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents, perhaps encouraging them to grab U.S. troops or citizens as bargaining chips for the release of others in U.S. custody.

Republicans pressed that point. "Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers, asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?"

President Barack Obama, joined in the Rose Garden on Saturday by the sergeant's parents, said the deal was struck because the U.S. "does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."

Also Saturday, the five detainees left Guantanamo aboard a U.S. military aircraft flying to Qatar, which served as go-between in the negotiations. They are to be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.

Among the five: a Taliban deputy intelligence minister, a former Taliban interior minister with ties to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and a figure linked by human rights monitors to mass killings of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.

Administration officials and lawmakers pressed their points on the Sunday news shows. Republicans said the deal violated requirements that Congress be given 30 days' notice before any exchange of captives at Guantanamo.

 

The Canadian Press

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