Palau Can't Take The Uighurs: Says China

07/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Palau's president 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, but China called them "terrorist suspects" and demanded they be sent home.

The other four Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, left U.S. detention for a new home in Bermuda on Thursday.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong 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. China said it opposes any country taking them.

It's the first time since 2006 that the U.S. has successfully resettled any of Guantanamo's Uighurs. The U.S. government had determined they weren't enemy combatants and should be released. But China objected, and it had been unclear where they would go free.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference the United States should "stop handing over terrorist suspects to any third country, so as to expatriate them to China at an early date." He did not say if China would take any action in response.

Palau, a former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, is one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China, instead recognizing Taiwan.

Toribiong said Palau did not consider China's reaction when it accepted the U.S. request to temporarily resettle the detainees, who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001.

The Pentagon later decided they were not enemy combatants. Even so, the Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing the Uighurs on U.S. soil as free men and so it sought alternatives abroad.

The Justice Department on Friday issued a statement thanking the government of Bermuda for helping resettle four of the detainees. Ilshat Hassan, vice president of the Washington-based Uighur American Association, confirmed that four of the Uighurs arrived Thursday morning in Bermuda.

The U.S. has said it feared the men would be executed if they were returned to China.

Palau had agreed to take all 17 remaining Uighurs in Guantanamo, but the resettlement of the four in Bermuda leaves only 13 left.

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. He called Palau a "Christian nation" but with a 450-member Muslim community.

"It's an old-age tradition of Palauans to accommodate the homeless who find their way to the shores of Palau," Toribiong told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We did agree to accept them due to the fact that they have become basically homeless and need to find a place of refuge and freedom."

Beijing says the men are members of extremist groups working to separate the far western region of Xinjiang from China.

"We understand these ... people are not terrorists but separatists from their national government in China," Toribiong said. "If China objects to their being in Palau, I would think their objection was also directed at their detention in Guantanamo Bay."

Toribiong said Palau would send a delegation to Guantanamo to assess the Uighur detainees.

With eight main islands and more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines.

Palau has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 and is entitled to U.S. protection under an accord.

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said earlier this week that the U.S. was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.

Toribiong denied the report.

"We are not linking this act to the financial assistance from the United States," Toribiong said.

How long the men stay depends on whether they can find a better place to go, Toribiong said.

"So we'll accept them and the details of the arrangements will be worked out, and they will be here until we can find out where they should be permanently located," he said.

Asked if there had been any public reaction in Palau to the decision, Toribiong said, "Palau's people are always on the side of the U.S. government."