The United States has transferred five Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Europe as part of efforts to empty and close the controversial US military detention center in Cuba, officials said Thursday.
Three Yemeni prisoners were sent to Georgia, while a fourth Yemeni and a Tunisian were transferred to Slovakia, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins said.
The men, aged 31 to 48, arrived by plane Thursday evening, leaving behind 143 terror suspects at Guantanamo. They had been held at the prison facility for more than a decade without charge or trial.
The five men had been cleared for release by President Barack Obama's administration.
Most of the prisoners still languishing at the US naval base are from Yemen. Of the 84 detainees from that country, 54 have been cleared for release.
Obama lifted a moratorium in May on transfers of Yemeni prisoners, but none had been released until now due to political instability in Yemen and the risk of returning to the fight.
Hasham Bin Ali Bin Amor Sliti, from Turkey, and Husayn Salim Muhammad al-Mutari Yafai were sent to Slovakia.
- 'Sold to bounty hunters' -
Legal support group Reprieve said Sliti had been sold for bounty to Pakistani soldiers in December 2001, then handed to US forces in January 2002 and "tortured" for four months in the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Sliti, 48, was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002.
"This is a welcome day, if long overdue, and (Sliti) is looking forward to rebuilding his life and starting a family," Reprieve attorney Cori Crider said in a statement.
"Let us hope that the dozens of other cleared men left in Gitmo will soon follow," the lawyer added, referring to the prison.
The Pentagon said it was grateful to Slovakia and Georgia for their willingness to "support ongoing US efforts" to close Guantanamo Bay.
"The United States coordinated with the government of Slovakia to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures," the Pentagon said in a statement.
Slovakia has already taken six Guantanamo prisoners, including three Uighurs.
A similar statement was released about the transfers to Georgia of Salah Mohammed Salih Al Dhabi, Abdel Ghalib Ahmad Hakim and Abdul Khaled al-Baydani.
"We are grateful to the Republic of Georgia for offering our client a new home where he can begin to rebuild his life after more than a decade in Guantanamo without charge or trial," said the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented Hakim.
CCR senior attorney Wells Dixon said his client's resettlement serves as a reminder that "the remaining Yemeni men should be sent home or resettled without further delay."
- 'Pick up the pace' -
CCR Yemen expert Ibraham Qatabi noted that Yemen's Ambassador Adel Alsunaini and the Embassy of Yemen had provided assistance on the Yemeni prisoners' case, and that the country has offered to receive or resettle its nationals remaining at Guantanamo.
Human Rights First said the transfer of prisoners signaled significant progress but stressed inmates need to be released at a quicker pace.
"The administration needs to move much more quickly to transfer detainees who have been unanimously cleared," Human Rights First's Raha Wala said.
In early November, a military official told AFP that about 15 detainees would be transferred over the winter. Six inmates are expected to go to Uruguay, and another four could be sent back to Afghanistan.