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US releases teenage prisoners from Guantanamo
( 2004-01-30 09:36) (Agencies)

The United States said on Thursday it had released three Afghan teenagers from its military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and flown them back to their home country.

The three, ranging from 13 to 15 years old, were the only youths among 660 suspected Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas being held without charge as "enemy combatants" at the U.S. naval base.

Detention of the prisoners, especially the teenagers, has drawn major criticism from human rights groups and governments who have urged the United States to file charges against the detainees or release them.

The Pentagon did not say where the three juveniles were flown, but one U.S. official told Reuters they were returned to Afghanistan-- where they were arrested more than a year ago -- to be set free.

"With the assistance of non-governmental organizations, the juveniles will be resettled in their home country. It is our goal to return them to an environment where they have an opportunity to re-integrate into civil society," the Defense Department said in a statement.

In the face of criticism of its prisoner policy, a senior official at the Pentagon in the past described the juveniles as enemy combatants who despite their age were "very, very dangerous people" who "have stated they have killed and will kill again."

But the Pentagon said on Thursday that senior officials had decided to free the three because they were no longer a seen as enemies in the U.S. "war on terror."

Most of the prisoners at Guantanamo were captured in the war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that Washington blames on fugitive Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda guerrilla network.

The release of the three juveniles brought to 91 the number of detainees freed from the U.S. Navy Base prison since the expanded facility was built there after the attacks. Four of those were returned to Saudi Arabia for continued detention and the others to their home countries to be set free.

"Senior leadership, in consultation with other senior U.S. government officials, determined that the juvenile detainees no longer posed a threat to our nation, that they have no further intelligence value and are not going to be tried by the U.S. government for any crimes," the Pentagon said.

"Age is not a determining factor in detention. We detain enemy combatants who engaged in armed conflict against our forces or provided support to those fighting against us."

Two of the three were captured during raids by U.S. and allied forces on Taliban camps and a third was arrested while trying to obtain weapons to fight American troops, the announcement said.

Although none of the prisoners has been charged, U.S. defense officials have said that some could soon be charged and tried by military commissions authorized by U.S. President Bush.

The Defense Department said the three teenagers had been housed in a separate detention facility "modified to meet the special needs of juveniles" and were given access to the International Red Cross.

"In this facility, they were not restricted in the same manner as adult detainees and underwent assessments from medical, behavioral, educational, intelligence and detention specialists to address their unique needs," it said.

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