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Freed Afghan youth tells of Guantanamo

NAW ZAD, Afghanistan -- A 15-year-old youth released after spending a year at the US prison for terror suspects in Cuba said he was detained after Afghan militiamen falsely accused him of being a Taliban sympathizer.

Mohammed Ismail Agha was reunited last week with his family in a remote southern Afghan village after a year as one of the youngest inmates in Guantanamo Bay, a high-security prison holding about 650 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters detained since the US-led war in Afghanistan began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Agha was one of three Afghan youths freed. Military officials said the youths had provided viable intelligence but had no further value and were no longer a threat to the United States.

In his first interview since his release, Agha said the US military "stole" 14 months of his life -- but still treated him well.

His case highlights the perils facing young Afghans caught between a virulent Taliban insurgency roiling their country's south and east and American forces hunting them with the aid of sometimes brutal Afghan allies. Agha was seized about a year after the Taliban were ousted by a US-led coalition.

Agha said US forces interrogated him at Bagram Air Base, north of the capital, Kabul, about whether he was a Taliban supporter. Yet once he reached Cuba, there were few questions, only schooling, prayer, and good food.

"At first I was unhappy with the US forces. They stole 14 months of my life," said Agha, sitting in a relative's general store at the bazaar in Naw Zad, a market town about 300 miles southwest of Kabul.

He said his family feared he was dead or had traveled to neighboring Pakistan or Iran to find work. It was not until 10 months into his detention that family members received a letter from him through the international Red Cross, saying he was still alive.

"But they gave me a good time in Cuba. They were very nice to me, giving me English lessons," said Agha, a smile spreading across his face between a small beard and a white turban that made him look two or three years older.

Naw Zad officials sent a messenger to summon Agha from Durabien village, where he lives, to talk to reporters, warning that there were Taliban in the hills where he lived. It was the first interview given by any of the three Afghan youths since their Jan. 29 release from Guantanamo.

Agha denied having anything to do with the ousted Islamic militia now mounting a vicious insurgency.

"I'm not Taliban, it's not true. I'm innocent," he said.

American officials said last week that one of the three Afghan youths told of being conscripted into an anti-American militia group. A second said he was abducted by the Taliban and forced to train and fight, while the third was studying in an extremist mosque and captured while preparing to obtain weapons.

They declined to elaborate, saying that identifying the youths could put them in danger.

Human rights groups have long criticized the youths' detentions, saying the separation from their families would hurt them. They and some foreign governments also complained that the youths, like hundreds of adult prisoners, have not had trials or access to lawyers.

The Pentagon has insisted that age plays no role in deciding who is held as any "enemy combatant," and officials have said more juveniles are still at Guantanamo.

The group Human Rights Watch said those juvenile detentions violate an international treaty obligating the United States to rehabilitate child soldiers. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Children establishes 18 as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict and obligates governments to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said.

Agha said his odyssey began when he and a friend left their farming community for Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand Province, in late 2002. Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, militants have maintained a stubborn insurgency in southern provinces, including Helmand.

The youths were standing outside a shop in a town along the way when they were detained by Afghan militiamen.

"They said, `Come and join us,' but we told them we are poor people, jobless, and we don't want to join the militia, we want to earn money," Agha said. "Then they said, `You are Taliban.' "

Agha said he was then handed over to American soldiers, who first took him to the southern city of Kandahar and then to Bagram, where he was held in solitary confinement. He lost track of his friend, Mohammed Wali, in Kandahar and has not seen him since.

"They were interrogating me every day, and in the first three or four days giving just a little food and giving punishment," he said.

He was not beaten but was made to sit on his haunches for three or four hours at a time, even when he wanted to sleep, he said. Agha said he was hooded and had no idea where he was going until he got off a plane on the other side of the world in February 2003.

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