The Pacific nation of Palau has agreed to take 17 Chinese Uighurs currently held at Guantánamo Bay, ending a long US struggle to find a country to accept the detainees.
“I am honoured and proud that the United States has asked Palau to assist with such a critical task,” said Johnson Toribiong, president of the nation of about 21,000 people.
“This is a small thing that we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau.”
Washington has been trying for years to find a home for the Uighurs - Muslim Chinese from the North-western province of Xinjiang – after the Pentagon decided they no longer posed a threat.
The US brought the Uighurs to Guantánamo in 2002 after they were captured in Pakistan having fled Afghanistan in the wake of the 2001 US invasion.
Beijing, which has long demanded that the US repatriate the Uighurs, on Thursday urged the US to stop “handing terror suspects to any third country”.
“China urges the US to implement the UN Security Council’s relevant resolutions and its international obligations on counter-terrorism,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
Beijing argues that the Uighurs are terrorists attached to a separatist movement in Xinjiang but Washington has refused on the grounds that the 17 men might be tortured or killed.
Until now, the only success the US has had in relocating the Uighurs was in getting Albania to take five of the men. Under the Bush administration, the US refused to take any of the detainees, and European countries, including Germany and Sweden which have the largest Uighur communities outside China, refused to help.
The decision by Palau to accept the Uighurs will provide some momentum to President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the controversial prison at Guantánamo which still houses about 240 detainees.
Mr Obama pledged to shut the facility by January, but his efforts face strong opposition from the US Congress. Republicans, and some Democrats, oppose any effort to transfer detainees to the US.
But Mr Obama has also faced some internal resistance. The FT reported last month that the Guantanamo task force established by Mr Obama had recommended releasing two of the 17 Uighurs in the US, following a court order that there was no basis to continue their detention. But the move was resisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The US had been focusing on persuading countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Palau has not switched diplomatic recognition for China from Taipei to Beijing.
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