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24 Guantanamo prisoners to be freed

From correspondents in Madrid
22nov03

THE United States will release a dozen prisoners from the American navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the coming weeks, a US envoy said today.

More than 600 prisoners are held incommunicado in Guantanamo Bay following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They are accused of links to al-Qaeda or the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

About 64 have been freed and sent to their home countries.

"We expect to see almost two dozen individuals released in the coming weeks who no longer pose a threat to the international community," said Pierre-Richard Prosper, the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes at a press conference at the US embassy in Madrid.

He declined to say what nationalities the detainees were, or to specify the date of their expected release.

Several dozen other prisoners will be sent to their home countries for a lengthy process of investigation, detention and prosecution, Prosper said. He described these detainees as posing "a medium-level threat" to the international community.

Prosper was in Madrid to meet with Spanish officials from the interior, justice and foreign ministries to discuss the case of a Spanish citizen held in Guantanamo.

He confirmed the man, who is from Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, was not among those scheduled to be released.

"We believe he poses a significant threat to Spain, to the US and to the international community," Prosper said. "We're disturbed by the information we have and the depths of the contacts we know he has with al-Qaeda."

Prosper said discussions with the Spanish government will focus on whether the Spaniard should remain in Guantanamo or be prosecuted in Spain. He acknowledged that Madrid had pressured the United States to study the Spanish citizen's case.

Although Spain has been a staunch supporter of the Bush administration and its war on terror, Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio recently issued fierce criticism of the US, labelling the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo a "major error" and complaining that the prisoners were being held in what she called legal limbo.

Prosper downplayed Palacio's remarks.

"We've appreciated her frankness," he said. "Friends should tell friends what they think."

Prosper said the detainees represent a threat to the world and that their release must be considered carefully as, he said, "lives depend upon the decision that will be made".

"We understand that there are people who want us to move quickly and we're trying. But we need the best decision we can, because what we would not want to see occur is that we release someone and the very next day he's in the next plane in the next tall building in the next capital of Europe, the United States, Middle East or anywhere else," he said.


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