U.S. military releases about 80 Afghans
The U.S. military freed 81 prisoners held in Afghanistan on Sunday, and the country's most senior judge said the government was pressing for the release of hundreds more from American custody.
The prisoner release ahead of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which begins Jan. 20, could help a reconciliation drive with former Taliban regime members sought by both President Hamid Karzai and the American military in hopes of defusing a stubborn insurgency hampering Afghanistan's recovery.
Karzai's office said the prisoners were freed thanks to "cooperation" between the government and the U.S. military.
"Bringing happiness to a Muslim family during Eid is a great reward, and our people should also live joyfully during Eid like other Muslims around the world," the president said, according to an e-mailed statement.
Two buses brought the 81 Afghan prisoners from the main U.S. base at Bagram to the Supreme Court in the capital, Kabul, where the chief justice warned them to stay out of trouble and say little about their detention.
"Don't sabotage the security or the government, and God will be pleased with you," Fazl Hadi Shinwari told the men, seated in a hall at the court before being allowed to complete their journey home.
A presidential aide said on condition of anonymity that the men were held at Bagram, in the southeastern city of Khost and in the southern city of Kandahar. Court officials initially announced they were released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but later said they were mistaken.
Four of those freed told reporters they had been held for between 8 1/2 months and two years. The men said they were interrogated repeatedly about militant activities, and they all claimed to be innocent. None complained of abuse.
"They questioned me a lot, but I told them I don't know anything about contacts with the Taliban or al-Qaida or how they are coming into our area," said Mohammed Afzal, a Khost man aged about 25.
American and allied Afghan forces captured thousands of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members in Afghanistan after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the repressive Taliban government in late 2001.
Hundreds of detainees have been classified as "enemy combatants" and transferred to Guantanamo.
The U.S. military has suggested it is detaining as few people as possible and that a reconciliation program to be organized by Karzai's government could reduce its prison population further.
Shinwari said Sunday's release was part of that program and added that Afghan officials were negotiating the releases of about 400 people in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and others in Guantanamo.
"The government doesn't want one prisoner to be left in jail," he said. "They will be released."
Karzai has urged rank-and-file Taliban supporters to make peace and join the effort to rebuild Afghanistan in return for freedom from prosecution. Many are believed to have taken refuge in neighboring Pakistan.
There were several releases of Afghans from U.S. custody last year.