Four of the seven French citizens held at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been handed over to French authorities and flown to France. The men were immediately taken into custody and face interrogation by France's top anti-terrorist judge.
French foreign ministry officials say the transfer of the four men, all of Arab origin, follows an agreement that was reached earlier this month between France and the United States. The officials say the deal was clinched when France promised to keep the men under detention while it investigates them for links to terrorism.
The four men, who were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan between the end of 2001 and early 2002 on suspicion of fighting for the Taleban, can be held for four days before they are brought before a judge. Anti-terrorist magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere is expected to place some, if not all, of them under investigation for criminal association with terrorists.
Jacques Debray, an attorney who represents two of the men, Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi, says he is pleased the men have been flown back to France.
He says he has been fighting for two-and-one-half years to secure his clients' repatriation. He says one cannot say that they have been released, but at least they have been repatriated to France.
His two clients are from Venissieux, a gritty working-class suburb of Lyon that is considered a hotbed of political Islam. Mourad Benchellali's father, a local prayer leader, and his elder brother are in police custody for allegedly planning to attack Russian interests in France in retaliation for Russia's crackdown in its heavily Muslim republic of Chechnya.
Another of the returnees, Brahim Yadel, is wanted by French police for his alleged involvement in plotting an attack during the 1998 World Cup in France. One of Judge Bruguiere's aides says he is also suspected of having links to the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group.
Like most of the hundreds of other inmates at Guantanamo, the four French returnees were never charged with any specific crimes and had no recourse to lawyers. The U.S. military calls them enemy combatants and has maintained that they do not have the right to contest their detention in U.S. courts.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that they do have a legal right to challenge their confinement.
France says it will continue discussions with U.S. authorities to obtain the repatriation of the other three Frenchmen who are still at Guantanamo.