US soldier freed in Afghanistan, 5 Taleban prisoners leave Guantanamo
President Barack Obama hailed the release in a brief appearance with Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden.
The last US prisoner of war from America’s waning war in Afghanistan was handed over to US Special Operations forces on Saturday, in a dramatic swap for five Taleban detainees who were released from Guantanamo Bay prison and flown to Qatar.
Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held for nearly five years by Afghan militants and his release followed years of on-and-off negotiations.
President Barack Obama hailed the release in a brief appearance with Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden, saying that “while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten.”
Bergdahl was on his way to an American military hospital in Germany, a US defence official said. Another defence official said it was expected that after treatment in Germany he would be transferred to a military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas.
US special forces took custody of Bergdahl in a non-violent exchange with 18 Taleban members in eastern Afghanistan, senior US officials said, adding that he was believed to be in good condition. Before leaving for Germany, he received medical care at Bagram Air Base, the main US base in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl, 28, was handed over about 6 p.m. local time on Saturday, a senior official said. The US forces, who had flown in by helicopter, were on the ground very briefly, said the officials, who would not specify the precise location of the handover.
A US defence official said Bergdahl was able to walk and became emotional on his way to freedom.
“Once he was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, ‘SF?’” the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces.
“The operators replied loudly: ‘Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.’ And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down.”
Hours later, a second US defence official said the five Taleban detainees had departed the Guantanamo prison for foreign terrorism suspects. They were aboard a US military C-17 aircraft and en route to Qatar.
Bergdahl, who is from Idaho, was the only known missing US soldier in the Afghan war that was launched soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to dislodge the Taleban-accused of sheltering Al Qaeda militants - from power.
He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
Family, hometown celebrate
The Bergdahl family was in Washington, D.C., when informed by Obama of the release. The parents said in a statement they were “joyful and relieved,” adding: “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son.”
Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, also began celebrating.
“Once we heard about it. We were pretty excited,” said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs on Saturday and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works.
The Afghan Taleban confirmed on Saturday it had freed Bergdahl. “This is true. After several rounds of talks for prisoners’ swap, we freed US soldier and our dear guest in exchange of five commanders held in Guantanamo Bay since 2002,” a senior Taleban commander said.
The Taleban commander said Bergdahl had mostly been held in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan after what he termed his “dramatic” kidnapping from Afghanistan’s Paktika province in June 2009.
Reuters first reported the potential deal involving the five Taleban detainees in December 2011.
A second senior US official said the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release revived last November when the Taleban signaled it wanted to resume talks on prisoners. But it was unclear why the Taleban moved now to conclude a deal that Washington had been seeking for years.
While US and Taleban envoys have met directly in the past, there were no direct US-Taleban contacts during the most recent negotiations, US officials said.
The final stage of negotiations, which took place in the Qatari capital, Doha, began one week ago, the US officials said. Obama and Qatar’s emir spoke on Tuesday and reaffirmed the security conditions under which the Taleban members would be placed, they said.