Montevideo: Six men detained at Guantanamo for more than a decade have been resettled in Uruguay, as US President Barack Obama attempts to fulfill his long-delayed promise to close the US military prison.
The Pentagon said Sunday that with their departure, 136 detainees now remain at the US naval base in Cuba, of whom 67 have been approved for release by Obama`s government and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Among the six was Syrian prisoner Jihad Diyab, 43, who had staged a hunger strike and requested a US court to order prison officials to stop force-feeding him.
The men -- including three other Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian -- received an "approved for transfer" from US authorities and left the military base on a US Air Force plane at 11:00 am on Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Myles Caggins told AFP, arriving in Uruguay before midnight.
They will be granted refugee status in Uruguay, the foreign ministry in Montevideo said, confirming their arrival.
All those transferred are in their 30s and 40s, and were among the first to arrive in Guantanamo in 2002.
Obama, as one of his first acts in office upon taking office in January 2009, vowed to close the US military prison, but that has been thwarted by the US Congress.
He has therefore had to rely on a handful of countries that have agreed to take in some of the prisoners.
"We are very grateful to Uruguay for this important humanitarian action, and to President (Jose) Mujica for his strong leadership in providing a home for individuals who cannot return to their own countries" because of conflicts or the threat of torture, special envoy for Guantanamo closure Cliff Sloan told AFP.
He called the move "a major milestone in our efforts to close the facility."
Mujica announced in March that Uruguay would take in the inmates. He has said they will have the freedoms of any other resident, including the right to travel.The transfers, which had initially been due to take place in August, were delayed for political reasons.
By the time Washington was ready, the South American country was in the midst of an election campaign to choose Mujica`s successor, making the issue a political hot potato.
But after his Broad Front (FA) party secured another five years in power with the election of his ally Tabare Vazquez in a runoff vote last Sunday, Mujica pressed ahead with the deal.
Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla known for legalizing marijuana, giving most of his salary to charity and living in a run-down farmhouse, has said he sympathizes with the transferred inmates because of the 13 years he spent as a political prisoner.
The Pentagon`s envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, Paul Lewis, said he always visits countries where detainees may be sent before a final decision on a transfer is taken.
"Security is always top of mind prior to any decision to transfer a detainee, and each detainee is closely reviewed by six departments before he is eligible for transfer," he said.
But Congressman Mike Rogers, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN that countries receiving Guantanamo detainees did not always have the ability to keep a close eye on those they were taking in.
"Some of these intelligence services who do these agreements about agreeing to watch them or monitor them can`t do it. So we pay money. Remember, we`re going to pay a lot of money for these who take these particular prisoners," he said Sunday.
"We do know, by the way, some past released prisoners are now re-engaged in the terrorist fight."A total of 779 prisoners have been held at Guantanamo in the nearly 13 years since the military detention center was set up at the US naval base in the southeastern corner of Cuba.
Most have been detained without charge or facing trial.
The Pentagon named the six released as Syrians Ahmed Ahjam, Ali Hussein Shaabaan, Omar Abou Faraj and Jihad Diyab; Palestinian Mohammed Tahanmatan; and Tunisian Abdoul Ourgy.
Their resettlement follows the release of seven other prisoners in November.
Human Rights Watch hailed the release as a move to help correct a grave injustice.
"The transfer of six detainees to Uruguay is an important step toward ending the longstanding injustice of holding people indefinitely without charge at Guantanamo," the group said in a statement.
The closure of the prison at Guantanamo, set up to hold detainees from Bush`s post-9/11 "War on Terror," was a prominent part of Obama`s election campaign in 2008.