LONDON — Britain asked the United States yesterday to free five British residents from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a policy reversal that suggests new Prime Minister Gordon Brown is pursuing a tougher line with the United States than his predecessor had.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting the release, the Foreign Office said. The government has warned relatives that it expects negotiations to take several months.
While serving as prime minister, Tony Blair refused for years to intervene in many Guantanamo cases.
His government chose to secure the release only of nine British citizens and one resident who had provided help to British intelligence services. It refused to intervene in the plight of other British residents, saying as recently as March that it could not help people who were not citizens.
The five men — Saudi citizen Shaker Aamer, Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, Libyan-born Omar Deghayes, Ethiopian Binyam Mohamed and Algerian Abdennour Sameur — all had been granted refugee status, indefinite leave or exceptional leave to remain in Britain before they were detained, the Foreign Office said.
In Washington, the State Department welcomed the request and said it was being reviewed in line with the Bush administration's stated desire to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo with an eye toward closing it.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stressed that any transfers from Guantanamo would depend on assurances that the detainees would be secured but not mistreated.
"We don't want to be the world's jailers," Mr. McCormack said. "At the same time, we also don't want to see very dangerous people allowed to walk the streets freely so they can pose a threat to our citizens as well as others."
Although many of his Cabinet ministers called for Guantanamo to be shut, Mr. Blair said the prison camp was an "anomaly" and did not press Mr. Bush to close it.
But U.S. steps to reduce the numbers of detainees at the military prison prompted a review of the British government's approach, the Foreign Office said.
Five Britons were freed in March 2004 and four in January 2005, the Foreign Office said.
Bisher al-Rawi, a 37-year-old Iraqi national and British resident, was released from the camp in April after five years in detention. British officials took up his case only after it was disclosed that he had assisted MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency.
The Foreign Office said that of the five detainees it wants freed, only el-Banna has been cleared for release in May. The Pentagon could not clarify the status of the four other men.