WASHINGTON -- The administration is negotiating the transfer of almost 70 percent of the detainees at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to three countries, officials said. The move is part of a plan, they said, to share the burden of keeping suspected terrorists behind bars.
US officials announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement with the government of Afghanistan to transfer most of its nationals to Kabul's ''exclusive" control and custody. There are 110 Afghan detainees at Guantanamo, and 350 at the Bagram airfield near Kabul. Their transfers could begin in the next six months.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes, who led a US delegation this week to the Middle East, said similar agreements are being pursued with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, whose nationals make up a significant percentage of the population in the Guantanamo facility.
Prosper held talks in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and Monday, but the negotiations were cut off after King Fahd's death was announced.
The decision to move more than 20 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo to Afghanistan, and to largely clear out the detention center at Bagram, is part of a plan for a significant reduction in the population of ''enemy combatants" in US custody.
Senior US officials said the agreement yesterday was the first major step toward whittling down the Guantanamo population to a group of people whom the United States expects to hold indefinitely.
''This is not an effort to shut down Guantanamo," Matthew Waxman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, said after leaving Kabul with Prosper. ''Rather," he added, ''the arrangement we have reached with the government of Afghanistan is the latest step in what has long been our policy -- that we need to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield.
''We, the US, don't want to be the world's jailer. We think a more prudent course is to shift that burden onto our coalition partners," Waxman said.
The negotiations are taking place amid intense international and domestic pressure on US detention operations.
There have been allegations of mistreatment and abuse, as well as concern that detainees have been held for years without being prosecuted for alleged crimes.
Legal problems have also plagued the Guantanamo prosecutorial process, which has been blocked for months as detainees' lawyers make challenges in US federal courts.
''The Guantanamo issue is clearly a liability for the Bush administration, and emptying it has become a priority," said John Sifton, a specialist on Afghanistan and detainee issues at Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group.
''It's not a victory for human rights if a whole set of people deprived of their liberty are then moved to another place and continued to be deprived of their liberty unlawfully," Sifton added.
The agreement with Afghanistan is the largest of its kind so far. Prosper said yesterday that the US government is working to send 129 Saudis and 107 Yemenis from Guantanamo to the custody of their home countries. If the US government can arrange the transfer of detainees who came from all three countries, the population at the US facility will drop by 68 percent, from 510 to 164.