Three military officers from Afghanistan who disappeared Saturday while taking part in a training conference on Cape Cod were detained Monday at the Canadian border near Niagara Falls, authorities said.
The Afghan soldiers, last seen at the Cape Cod Mall two days earlier, were taken into custody without incident some 500 miles away while attempting to cross into Canada at the famed Rainbow Bridge checkpoint, according to the Massachusetts National Guard and Massachusetts State Police. Canadian authorities turned over the men to the US Customs and Border Protection agency late Monday afternoon, officials said.
Governor Deval Patrick, speaking before the three men were found, said there was speculation within the military that the officers had planned to seek asylum. Authorities said the officers were on a pass for a trip to the mall and were reported missing at 9 p.m. Saturday.
“The officers were participating in a chaperoned event to introduce them to cultural aspects of American life,’’ the Massachusetts National Guard said in a statement Monday night.
There was no indication they had committed any crimes, and officials insisted the men had been cleared by the US military to attend the training conference and were not considered security threats. But the mystery surrounding their whereabouts drew national attention and sparked concerns about the men’s motives.
It was the second such recent disappearance. Two Afghan police officers training with the US Drug Enforcement Administration disappeared while taking a tour of Washington, D.C., and were detained in the Buffalo area Thursday, where authorities believe they were trying to reunite with family.
In Monday’s incident, the three Afghan officers were detained at about 10 a.m., the National Guard said. The men, thought to be at least initially in the custody of Canadian authorities, were holding visas to stay in the United States through the middle of the week, according to a law enforcement official who was briefed on the case.
Major Jan Mohammad Arash, Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada, and Captain Noorullah Aminyar of the Afghan army had flown to the United States Sept. 11 for the weeklong training exercise at Camp Edwards, a part of Joint Base Cape Cod. The program, which ends Wednesday, brings together 200 military personnel and other participants from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
The annual conference began in 2004 and has been held in various countries. The conference is intended “to promote cooperation” and help the armed forces from different nations, especially the United States and Central and South Asian countries, to work more closely together, according to the US Central Command, which sponsored the conference.
Participants receive training in responding to domestic emergencies and in various United Nations peacekeeping operations. The Massachusetts National Guard hosted this year’s event.
Major Tiffany Collins, also with Central Command, said that the three soldiers were among 14 Afghans participating in the program. Collins said she was unaware of any similar events involving foreign military personnel invited to the United States.
Hours before the three officers were detained, a spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, downplayed concerns about any potential threat to public safety.
“As long as they are here on a visa, it’s not as if they are breaking any laws,” said spokesman Mark Blackington . “They might get in trouble with their own people, but I’m not really aware of any manhunt going on.”
The Afghans may have been motivated to remain in the West by the continued political turmoil in their country, including a recently deadlocked election to replace Hamid Karzai with a new president.
“People are concerned about the uncertainty in the country and the future, particularly young people,” said Ali Amhed Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister. “Many just want a better life. I sense this might be the reason for [the soldiers] to leave the country.”
The months-long standoff over the election result, followed by a disputed runoff, was finally settled Sunday with an agreement to establish a unity government.
In recent years there have been many cases of Afghans traveling abroad and then never returning, including “low-level officers but also high-ranking officials,” Jalali said.
“The violence influences many people. It is not just people who are leaving but people who are taking their money out of the country,” said Jalali, who teaches at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, which is part of the US Department of Defense.
William Joyce, a Boston immigration lawyer and retired immigration judge, said the men would need to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” to be granted asylum. Years of war and ongoing political instability would give the men “a fighting chance” to receive political asylum, he said. “I think they are good candidates,” he said. “It’s a Third World country with a lot of discord.”
The men could live here legally until their case was heard, a process that could take months or even years, he said.
“They are entitled to pursue a claim like anyone else,” he said.
Colonel James Sahady, a spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard, said the men had valid visas and passports and were free to come and go from the base.
Blackington, of the US Central Command, said the men’s backgrounds were carefully vetted before they were cleared to attend the program. “They have to be fairly experienced people to be invited,” he said.
Ralph A. Vitacco, selectmen chairman in Sandwich, which abuts the military reservation, said he had no major concerns about safety or security after the soldiers went missing over the weekend. Vitacco called the incident “an anomaly’’ and said the town had a great relationship with the base.