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Palau agrees to take some Guantanamo detainees

U.S. officials have persuaded the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau to accept some of the Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, representing a major step in the Obama administration’s plan to close the prison.

In a statement released to the Associated Press today, Palau President Johnson Toribiong said his government had “agreed to accommodate the United States of America’s request to temporarily resettle in Palau up to 17 ethnic Uighur detainees . . . subject to periodic review.”

It was unclear what he meant by “temporarily.”

The difficulty in finding a home for the detainees, members of China’s Uighur minority, underscores the obstacles the White House faces in meeting its January deadline for closing Guantanamo.

The Uighur detainees, whom the United States no longer considers a threat, should have been among the easiest of those at Guantanamo to resettle. But negotiations dragged, in part because China pressured countries not to accept them.

Some Uighurs in China are seeking independence; Beijing considers them terrorists and wants the detainees returned for investigation. The U.S. fears they will be mistreated if they are sent home.

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Other countries are reluctant to help empty the controversial prison, especially when no U.S. community has agreed to accept the Uighurs or any other Guantanamo detainee.

U.S. officials familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, still hope that one or more European countries will take some of the Uighurs.

The officials declined to identify the countries for fear of upsetting the talks.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress in April that the U.S. was poised to move some of the Uighurs to U.S. communities. Those plans stalled amid overwhelming congressional opposition.

Some human rights groups have expressed hope that the administration would send the Uighurs to a place where they could integrate into a larger society, get jobs and lead relatively normal lives.

“The test is whether this is a place where we can fulfill our responsibility to these people, rather than marooning them on another island,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Palau was administered by the U.S. after World War II and achieved independence in 1994, though it maintains close ties to Washington. Palau, east of the Philippines, has a population of about 20,000 on eight main islands.

The Obama administration has approved an increase in economic and development aid to Palau that could total as much as $200 million, according to a senior administration official, who said that the aid was not tied to the country’s agreement to accept detainees.

The additional aid is more than the country’s gross domestic product of $157 million, as estimated by the State Department.

The senior official said there would be an additional “modest sum” paid to help resettle the Uighurs. The resettlement amount will depend on how many Uighurs Palau takes.

An official familiar with the talks said the Uighurs probably would be able to find construction work in Palau. “They could easily find jobs,” the official said. “Palau’s economy includes construction, agriculture, crafts and fishing.”

But tourism is the nation’s largest source of jobs. About half of the labor force consists of foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines, China and Bangladesh, according to the State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report.

The report also says foreign workers are exempt from minimum-wage rules and are not always treated fairly. Noncitizens are not permitted to purchase land or become citizens, it says.

“Foreign residents were subjected to discrimination and were targets of petty, and sometimes violent, crimes, as well as other random acts against person and property,” the report says.

Despite those problems, Palau offers advantages to the Obama administration. The nation is highly dependent on American aid, and it does not recognize China, instead maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The prospect of moving Uighurs to a remote Pacific island struck some U.S. lawmakers as odd.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called it “ridiculous” and said Obama should abandon his campaign promise to close Guantanamo.

“He seems so determined to meet a deadline and create a symbolic move,” Cornyn said.

The Uighurs were sent to Guantanamo in 2002 after being captured in Pakistan. Before that, they had received firearms training at a camp in Afghanistan.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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