After months of legal uncertainty, a group of Chinese Muslims who have been held for years at the detention camp for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will be resettled in the remote Pacific island nation of Palau.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong announced Wednesday his government would be "honored and proud" to temporarily resettle the 17 Uighurs being held at the controversial U.S. detention center.
Mr. Toribiong agreed to Washington's request to accept the Uighurs after talks with U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried, who is leading the U.S. State Department's effort to resettle the Guantanamo detainees. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered Guantanamo to be shut down by January of next year.
The Bush administration refused to designate the Uighurs as "enemy combatants." It was in late 2008 when a U.S. federal judge ordered the men to be released into the United States. That ruling was eventually overturned by an appeals court.
Sandra Pierantozzi, Palau's minister of state, in an interview with VOA, says her nation is glad to have the Uighurs.
"If they want to settle in Palau we would welcome them," Pierantozzi said. "This is very much in line with the culture of Palau, where people who drift in and who needs settlement and place are welcome to our shores and our tradition will take care of them and insert them into our society."
The Uighurs are from China's western Xinjiang province. Beijing has accused the Uighurs, who dominate the province, as separatists who want to create an independent "East Turkestan." Washington is refusing to send the Uighurs back to China, fearing they would be persecuted.
Palau, a former U.S. trust territory until achieving independence in 1994, maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, China's longtime rival, rather than Beijing. Pierantozzi says her nation is not concerned over China's likely displeasure over the resettlement of the Uighurs.
"We continue to conduct business as usual, we are a free sovereign country, we are free to make decisions for us, as we believe and see for our benefit," Pierantozzi said. "and also we are a small country but we are a part of the United Nations and the world community of nations, so we try to do our part."
Although they would finally be free, Pierantozzi says the Uighurs may face some unexpected challenges living in Palau, a lightly populated chain of islands located 800 kilometers east of the Philippines.
"We'd like to think it is paradise, but you have to also remember the Uighurs come from a landlocked country in China, and for all intents and purposes, they make not like living in a small island surrounded by water," Pierantozzi said. "So we're not really sure they will want to come our not."
Pierantozzi denies reports her government agreed to accept $200 million in aid from the U.S. in exchange for accepting the Uighurs.