Yemeni prisoners pose obstacle to closing Guantanamo

( dpa ) - Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay pose the biggest obstacle to closing the military prison, because the United States has little faith that Yemen's government will keep the detainees from turning to terrorism once they return, US officials said Monday.

About 100 of the 275 detainees at the controversial prison camp are Yemenis, now outnumbering Afghans and Saudis. They have become the single largest nationality remaining at Guantanamo as the prison's population steadily declined from a peak of 600 in 2003.

The Pentagon has been repatriating detainees to their native or third countries after receiving assurances of humane treatment, along with the enactment of measures to limit the likelihood that prisoners will resume terrorist activity.

"The Yemeni population at Guantanamo has not been significantly reduced for several reasons, including our concerns about the level of threat the detainees would pose to the international community and the track record of the Yemeni government in mitigating that threat," Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in a letter to President George W Bush delivered Saturday to the US embassy in Sana'a, called for Guantanamo to be closed and the Yemeni detainees to be sent home. Attempts for comment from the Yemeni embassy in Washington were unsuccessful.

Bush has said that he wants the US prison camp in Cuba closed, but only if the prisoners can be responsibly returned to countries where they will not present a danger to the rest of the world. The top US military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, reiterated that position during a weekend visit to the naval base on Guantanamo Bay.

A US military official said the Yemeni population is the "main reason" Guantanamo is still open. Among the steps Yemeni authorities could take to alleviate US fears are to monitor them more closely after they are freed and to confiscate passports, the official said.

Like Saudi Arabia, Yemen should set up a "rehabilitation" programme that includes schooling, religious education and debate, and money and job placement, the official said.

The United States has transferred custody of about a dozen Yemenis to their native country. Most were released after their arrival in Yemen.

In October, the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni port escaped from prison along with two dozen other suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Jamal al-Badawi later turned himself in but was subsequently released.

"Until we have some level of confidence that the Yemeni government can take appropriate steps to mitigate the threat their nationals pose to the international community, our ability to transfer large numbers of Yemenis back will be limited," Gordon said.

Comments by a Yemeni member of Parliament who said Friday that the United States was set to release up to 70 of his countrymen were "inaccurate," he said.

Friday marked the sixth anniversary since the United States opened Guantanamo to house prisoners, captured mostly in Afghanistan in the war on terrorism launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

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