WASHINGTON — Four Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay prison were freed Thursday and resettled in Bermuda, sparking complaints from China and Britain even as the Obama administration tried to iron out details for sending more detainees to the Pacific island of Palau.
The four were among 17 Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. They remained at the military detention center in Cuba even after the U.S. government had determined they weren't enemy combatants and should be released. Their fate was in limbo for months while courts and nations debated their future.
Their release comes as the administration scrambles to meet President Barack Obama's pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by early next year. They were accompanied on the plane to Bermuda by White House counsel Greg Craig and Guantanamo closure chief Daniel Fried, who played a logistical role and ensured that the process went smoothly, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown said the men will be allowed to live in Bermuda, a British territory in the Atlantic, initially as refugees but they would be permitted to pursue citizenship and would have the right to work, travel and "potentially settle elsewhere."
Brown said negotiations with Washington over settling the Uighurs began last month and he had no security concerns because the men had been cleared by U.S. courts. But Britain, which handles Bermuda's defense, security and foreign affairs expressed displeasure at the move.
In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy, said Bermuda considered the resettlement an internal immigration matter, but added that Britain should have been consulted.
"We've underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted (Britain) on whether this falls within their competence or is a security issue for which the Bermuda government do not have delegated responsibility," she said.
Bermuda's acceptance of the four detainees marks the first time since 2006 that the U.S. has successfully resettled any of Guantanamo's population of Uighurs (WEE'-gurs). China strongly opposed their release, contending they were part of a Chinese separatist movement, and warned nations against taking them.
Thirteen other Uighurs, who are from a Chinese region that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain to be released. Arrangements are being made for them to be sent to Palau, whose president this week said his country, which does not have diplomatic relations with China, was willing to accept some or all of the Uighurs.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said Thursday that his tiny Pacific nation's tradition of hospitality prompted the decision to take in 13 Chinese Muslims in limbo at Guantanamo Bay.
He denied his government's move was influenced by any massive aid package from Washington, saying that the Uighurs have become "international vagabonds" who deserve a fresh start.
Toribiong said the Uighur detainees from China's arid west would start their new lives in a halfway house to see how they acclimatize to his tropical archipelago west of the Philippines.
Beijing said Thursday that all 17 Uighurs are terrorists and should be handed back to China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China "opposes any country taking any of these terrorist suspects."
Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated western region and they say have been repressed by the Chinese government. China long has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.
U.S. officials refused to return the Uighurs to China out of concerns they would be tortured or executed and the Justice Department on Thursday thanked the Bermudan government for accepting the four detainees.
U.S. officials did not say what restrictions, if any, would be placed on the Uighurs as they are resettled in Bermuda.
"We will consult regularly with the government of Bermuda on the status of these individuals," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
One official said the four would not be allowed to travel to the United States without prior approval from U.S. authorities.
Abdul Nasser, one of the four detainees who landed in Bermuda early Thursday morning, issued a statement through his lawyers, saying: "Growing up under communism we always dreamed of living in peace and working in free society like this one. Today you have let freedom ring."
Wells Dixon, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights which represents four Uighurs still held at Guantanamo, welcomed the resettlement of the men in Bermuda. "Any offer to resettle these men safely is taken seriously."
At the same time, he said, Germany or Canada would be better since there are large populations of Uighurs who could help the men readjust to life outside prison.
Alim Seytoff, vice president of the Uighur-American Association, said his group also would have preferred to see the detainees transferred to places where there are large Uighur populations but said he was nonetheless pleased that Bermuda and Palau were willing to accept them.
"In an ideal situation, we would want them to resettled in the U.S. or Canada or Germany or somewhere where there are sizeable Uighur communities," he said. "But we don't decide where they go and we are happy that these four have been transferred to Bermuda. We are happy that they are free."
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo and Ben Fox in San Juan and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.