A U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan for nearly five years has been released to U.S. forces, in a swap for five insurgents from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s nearly five-year captivity ended Saturday evening local time when about 18 heavily armed Taliban fighters handed him over to American Special Forces troops. Officials say the transfer on the outskirts of Khost province took place quickly and peacefully, monitored by U.S. aircraft.
Bergdahl underwent a preliminary medical checkup at a U.S. base in Afghanistan Saturday, before a flight to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
Hours after the release, President Barack Obama, who hosted Bergdahl's parents at the White House, thanked Qatari and Afghan diplomats for their "tireless efforts" to gain Bergdahl's release (see full transcript of Rose Garden
President Obama spoke alongside Bob and Jani Bergdahl, saying Qatar has given assurances that the release of the five insurgents to Doha will not jeopardize U.S. national security.
The soldier's father began his statement with words from a Muslim prayer, noting that his son had picked up Pashto, the language of his captors, and may not have heard much English spoken for a long time.
“I would like to say to Bowe right now, who is having trouble speaking English, 'Bismillah al rahman al raheem' [In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.]. Speaking in Pashto, he added. "I'm your father, Bowe. To the people of Afghanistan, the same, Khalifah al-Thani, the complicated nature of this recovery was, will never really be comprehended.”
According to Pentagaon officials, the exchange follows secret and indirect U.S.-Taliban negotiations mediated by Qatar, which will host the detainees. The detainees will be barred from leaving Qatar for at least one year.
Bergdahl, of the U.S. state of Idaho, was captured by the Taliban on June 30, 2009 — about two months after he arrived in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama broke the news of Bergdahl's release Saturday, calling the soldier's recovery "a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the U.S. government "never forgot Sergeant Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back."
A senior U.S. defense official said once Bergdahl boarded the noisy helicopter taking him away from his ordeal, he wrote the letters "SF" on a paper plate, followed by a question mark, as a way of asking the troops if they were U.S. special forces.
Over the roar of the helicopter, they replied, "Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time." The official says at that point, Bergdahl broke down in tears, overcome with emotion.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling the cost of Bergdahl's years of captivity to him and his family "immeasurable." Kerry spoke Saturday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to brief him on Bergdahl's release.
Kerry, President Obama and Hagel also expressed appreciation to the emir of Qatar for his help in securing Bergdahl's transfer.
Republican Senator John McCain welcomed Sergeant Bergdahl's release but questioned the prisoner swap. The senator has asked the Obama administration to disclose exactly what measures are being taken to ensure the five men — Taliban leaders whom McCain described as hardened terrorists and vicious and violent extremists - never return to fight against the United States and its partners.
A Taliban spokesman, in a statement, confirmed the five senior commanders have been released from Guantanamo after 13 years of captivity and are due to arrive in Qatar Sunday.
Afghan Senator Arifullah Pashtun told VOA the prisoners’ swap is good news for his country because the freed Afghans will be able to rejoin their families; but, he says questions are being raised in Afghanistan as to why the men were languishing at Guantanamo if they could be set free for securing the release of just one American soldier.
The senator says that the people in Afghanistan are questioning the detention of other Afghans at Guantanamo as they may not have committed any crimes, but the perception is they are being held so the United States can use them for prisoner swaps like the one on Saturday.
President Obama made a quick visit to Afghanistan last Sunday to visit U.S. forces, and later in the week said he wants to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission closes at the end of the year.
Ayaz Gul contibuted to this report from Islamabad.Luis Ramirez also contributed to this story from the White House. Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.