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US frees 15 Guantanamo Bay prisoners in transfer to UAE

Largest single inmate release during Obama's presidency brings Guantanamo Bay prison population down to 61
Three Afghan and 12 Yemeni prisoners were transferred from Guantanamo to the UAE (AFP)

Fifteen Guantanamo Bay prisoners have been transferred to the United Arab Emirates, the largest such release in years, the US defence department announced on Monday.

"The United States is grateful to the government of the United Arab Emirates for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the department said in a statement.

The latest transfers bring the Guantanamo prison population down to 61, in the largest single transfer of inmates during Barack Obama's presidency.

Obama promised to shut down the prison while running for president in 2008.

The prisoners were cleared for release by government agencies, which determined that the prisoners pose a "negligible security threat", an unnamed source told the Guardian.

"The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists," Lee Wolosky, the State Department's special envoy for closing Guantanamo, said.

"The support of our friends and allies - like the UAE -  is critical to our achieving this shared goal," Wolosky said.

Amnesty International welcomed the release.

“It's a significant repudiation of the idea that Guantanamo is going to be open for business for the indefinite future," Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA's security and human rights program director, told AFP.

One of those expected to have been transferred is an Afghan called Obaidullah, who allegedly had hidden land mines in 2001. He was detained for 14 years without trial. Two other Afghan nationals and 12 Yemenis have also been released, the Washington Post reported.

The Guantanamo prison has held nearly 800 inmates in all since it was opened shortly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

In February, the president presented Congress with a new closure plan for Guantanamo, which he said served only to stoke anti-US resentment.

Last week, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte renewed calls to keep Guantanamo open and published an unclassified report on 107 current and former detainees that she said highlighted their "terrorist" pasts.

"The more Americans understand about the terrorist activities and affiliations of these detainees, the more they will oppose the administration's terribly misguided plans to release them," she said.

To date, just 10 of the detainees at Guantanamo have faced criminal trial, including the "9/11 Five," led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who are accused of plotting the 11 September 2001 attacks.