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US transfers nine Yemenis from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia

The former prisoners will all participate in a Saudi rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programme
Guantanamo Bay's prisoner population is now down to 80 (AFP)

Nine Yemeni inmates have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said on Saturday, bringing the controversial military prison's remaining population down to 80.

It is the largest transfer from the facility since 10 Yemenis were sent to Oman in January and the first time Saudi Arabia has taken any Guantanamo inmates.

The men's release - just ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Saudia Arabia next week - is the result of years of negotiations with the Saudi government and they will all participate in a Saudi rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programme. 

The US has in recent months accelerated the rate at which detainees who have been approved for transfer are released from the facility, which Obama urgently wants to close before he leaves office at the start of next year.

The Guantanamo prison has held about 780 inmates in all since it was opened shortly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

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

The men arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier Saturday. Most had been recommended for release years ago, but faced delays owing in part to their home country sliding into civil war, meaning they could not be repatriated. 

The nine inmates are: Ahmed Umar Abdullah al-Hikimi, Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Nasir, Ali Yahya Mahdi al-Raimi, Tariq Ali Abdullah Ahmed Ba Odah, Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed al-Hamiri, Ahmed Yaslam Said Kuman, Abd al Rahman al-Qyati, Mansour Muhammed Ali al-Qatta, and Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri.

Ba Odah had been on hunger strike for years and was force-fed by the military.

Officials are still deliberating whether to release a 10th Yemeni who has been recommended for transfer, the New York Times reported.

Of the 80 remaining inmates, 26 have been approved for transfer and are expected to be released later this year.

Obama wants to send the rest, deemed to be the most dangerous, for incarceration in the US, but Republican lawmakers have steadfastly resisted any such move. 

'Playing politics'

Obama promised, on his second day in office in 2009, to close the Guantanamo jail within a year. His efforts floundered, however.

In February, the president presented Congress with a new closure plan for Guantanamo, which he says serves only to stoke anti-US resentment and fuel recruitment of militants.

But the plan is likely doomed in the face of Republicans continuing to oppose the jail's shuttering.

Amnesty International USA's Naureen Shah said the latest transfers add to momentum to close Guantanamo.

"Despite repeated attempts by some in Congress to keep Guantanamo open, President Obama's continued transfer of Guantanamo detainees signals that he does not buy into their fear-mongering," she said. 

"Congress cannot continue playing politics with the lives of detainees who may die behind bars without ever facing trial."

Guantanamo is a US naval base carved out of a remote chunk of land on the tip of southeastern Cuba. The administration of George W Bush opened a prison there to hold terror suspects.

Republican presidential candidates have vowed that if elected they would send more terror suspects to Guantanamo instead of closing it.

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