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US authorities free 4 French detainees

Men were held at Guantanamo

PARIS -- Four French detainees held by US authorities for more than two years at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, returned home yesterday -- the first French nationals to be released from the US base after months of talks -- and negotiations were underway for the transfer of three others.

The four detainees arrived by plane at a military base in Normandy and were taken by bus to Paris to appear before counterintelligence agents and antiterrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere. The men -- Mourad Benchellali, Imad Kanouni, Nizar Sassi, and Brahim Yadel -- were apprehended in the US campaign that toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

While historic allies, France and the United States have been at odds for more than a year over the best way to fight terrorism, Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the conflict in the Middle East, and the war in Iraq.

President Jacques Chirac of France said the handover was the ''result of long efforts" between Washington and Paris. He said his government would continue discussions with American authorities to free the remaining three French detainees at Guantanamo.

They are Ridouane Khalid, Khaled Ben Mustafa, and Mustaq Ali Patel, who has both French and Indian citizenship.

After months of international criticism for holding suspects at Guantanamo Bay without charge, the United States has been gradually releasing some detainees from its naval base in Cuba.

''The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether he is believed to pose a threat to the United States if released," the Pentagon said in a statement.

With the release of the four French detainees, 129 Guantanamo prisoners have been freed and 22 have been transferred to the control of other governments, the Pentagon said.

Seven have been returned to Russia, four to Saudi Arabia, one to Spain, one to Sweden, and five to Britain. About 600 inmates remain at Guantanamo.

The State Department said the release was a result of ''the cooperation we've enjoyed with France on this matter, and we look forward to continued close partnership in the war on terror."

Under French antiterror laws, the four men can be held for questioning for up to 96 hours. They may then be placed under investigation for criminal association with a terrorist enterprise, officials said.

There were few details about what officials suspected of the men, most of whom were of North African descent but grew up in working-class French suburbs.

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