- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

WELLINGTON, New Zealand | Palau has agreed to accept 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at the detention center for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indicating a resolution to one of the major obstacles to closing the prison camp.

The announcement Wednesday by the Pacific archipelago, which would clear the last of the Uighurs from the detention facility, was a major step toward the Obama administration’s goal of finding new homes for detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing but cannot go home for fear of ill-treatment.

The U.S. feared the minority Uighurs would be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China, but the Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them on U.S. soil as free men. The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the Pentagon later determined that they were not enemy combatants.

President Johnson Toribiong said the decision of Palau, one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, was “a humanitarian gesture” intended to help the detainees restart their lives. His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, will accept up to 17 of the detainees subject to periodic review, Mr. Toribiong said in a statement.

“This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau,” he said.

China, which has demanded the men be extradited to their homeland and pressured countries not to accept them, had no immediate reaction.

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development and 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.

A former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, Palau has retained close ties with the United States since its independence in 1994, when it signed a Compact of Free Association with the U.S.

Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China long has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.

A federal judge last year ordered the Uighur detainees released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not enemy combatants. But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since.

In 2006, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo but has since resisted taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.

Australia, which has a Uighur population, rejected two requests by the Bush administration to take the detainees but is said to be reviewing Mr. Obama’s request to take some of the Uighurs.

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