WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The tropical Pacific island nation of Palau announced Wednesday it will accept up to 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay despite a Pentagon determination that they are not “enemy combatants.”
China’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate reaction to the decision by Palau to grant Washington’s request to resettle the detainees from China’s Uighur minority who had been incarcerated at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. Palau is one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
President Johnson Toribiong said Palau was accepting the detainees “as a humanitarian gesture” intended to help them restart their lives. His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, will accept up to 17 of the detainees subject to periodic review, Toribiong said in a statement released to The Associated Press.
“This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau,” he said. A former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 when it signed a Free Compact of Association with the U.S.
While it is independent, it relies heavily on U.S. aid and is dependent on the United States for its defense.
Native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without passports or visas.
The Obama administration sought a solution for the detainees after facing fierce congressional opposition to releasing them on U.S. soil despite a Pentagon determination that they were not “enemy combatants.”
Palau, made up of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets, is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
A federal judge last year ordered the Uighur detainees released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not “enemy combatants.” But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since.
U.S. officials have not said publicly where the detainees might be sent, but said privately that Palau was a prime candidate for their relocation.
Asked Tuesday about discussions with Palau on the Uighurs, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to comment beyond saying the U.S. is “working closely with our friends and allies regarding resettlement” of detainees at Guantanamo.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.
The U.S. would not send the Uighurs back to China for fear they will be tortured or executed. Beijing says Uighur insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in China’s far west and wants those held at Guantanamo to be returned to China.
In 2006, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo but has since balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China. The State Department said last week that Daniel Fried, the career diplomat who was named earlier this year to oversee Guantanamo’s closure, had visited Palau but offered no details on his mission. Fried has been negotiating with third countries to accept many of the Guantanamo detainees.
Australia and Germany already have Uighur populations, making those countries obvious candidates.
Australia recently agreed to review a request to accept some Uighurs, after twice rejecting it from the United States. Germany has been reluctant to accept any detainees unless the United States takes some, too.