WASHINGTON – Two Libyans held for more than a decade without trial at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been transferred to Senegal, the Pentagon said on Monday, as President Barack Obama pushes to close the facility before leaving office in January.
The two men were the first of a group of about a dozen who are expected to be transferred in coming weeks to countries that have agreed to take them, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
With the latest departures, there are now 89 prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo. Most have been held for years without charge or trial, drawing international condemnation.
Obama, who in February gave Congress a plan for shuttering the prison, is seeking to make good on his long-time pledge. But he faces stiff opposition from many Republican lawmakers, as well as some fellow Democrats.
“We are taking all possible steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo and to close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
The Pentagon identified the two Libyans as Salem Abdu Salam Ghereby, 55, and Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar, believed to be 43 or 44.
They were among a group of prisoners, now numbering 35 following their departure, who have been cleared for transfer by U.S. government review panels. U.S. officials have said they expect to move out all members of that group by this summer, sending them to their homelands or other countries.
Kerry thanked the government of Senegal, a Muslim-majority West African country, for accepting the two Libyans for “humanitarian resettlement.” The United States has ruled out repatriating detainees to countries like Libya, which is locked in civil conflict and where militant Islamist groups are active.
Both had been accused of links to al Qaeda and were suspected members of a Libyan Islamist faction, according to leaked U.S. military documents. They were captured separately in Pakistan and held at Guantanamo since 2002.
Obama’s blueprint for closing Guantanamo prison calls for speeding up such transfers and bringing several dozen remaining prisoners to maximum-security prisons in the United States. U.S. law bars such transfers to the mainland, and Obama has not ruled out doing so by use of executive action.
The most prominent of those to be resettled over the next several weeks is Tariq Bah Odah, a 37-year-old Yemeni on a long-term hunger strike. He has been force-fed by nasal tube since he stopped eating solid food in 2007.
The latest transfers were the first to Senegal, a U.S. ally. Two Yemeni detainees were sent to Ghana in January. Others were sent recently to Oman.
Guantanamo prisoners were rounded up overseas when the United States became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The facility, opened by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, came to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to accusations of torture.