The State Department on Tuesday reported progress in contacts with European countries on resettling detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Resettlement of prisoners would speed the closure of the controversial facility that has housed terrorism suspects from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The contacts have not produced any firm commitments to accept prisoners. But officials here are praising what they call "a new attitude" on the issue in Europe and they are hopeful that as many as 60 Guantanamo detainees can be resettled there.
The Bush administration says the 60 prisoners, about one-fourth of the detention center's remaining population, no longer pose a serious threat to U.S. security and could be released.
But officials say many of them would face persecution or torture if they returned to their countries of origin in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere, and that the United States has long pressed other countries to accept them.
European governments opposed to the Bush administration anti-terrorism policy have resisted resettlement. But The Washington Post newspaper reported on Tuesday that at least six European governments have recently said they will consider accepting detainees. The paper framed the offers as a gesture to the incoming Barack Obama administration.
At a news briefing on Tuesday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that whatever the motive, the new attitude is "gratifying" and "positive". "Portugal and Foreign Minister Luis Amado should be praised for what they have done, sort of blazing a trail for a new European attitude in this regard. For a lot of years, we've taken some criticism from Europe regarding Guantanamo and the issues of the detainees. And it's great to see now that some of these European countries are now stepping up to a shared responsibility."
The Bush administration has long said it would like to close the facility but that it cannot because many detainees pose a security threat and others cannot be resettled. President-elect Obama has said flatly that the prison will be shut down after he takes office.
On a related matter, McCormack said returning 17 Uighur detainees to China is "not an option" and that U.S. officials are continuing efforts to place them elsewhere.
On Tuesday, China renewed its call for the repatriation of the Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims from western China, and said it opposes any other country accepting them.
Chinese officials say the detainees are members of an outlawed group seeking to split off the country's western Xinjiang region.
McCormack said the United States needs to be satisfied that released detainees no longer pose a security threat, and that they will not be mistreated if transferred. He said U.S. officials believe a handover of the Uighurs to China at this time "would not be the right thing to do."