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American POW freed in exchange with Taliban

Soldier in good condition after 5 years’ captivity

In an image from video, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl watched as a captor displayed his identity tag in Afghanistan.

REUTERS TV/file 2009

In an image from video, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl watched as a captor displayed his identity tag in Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON — The lone US prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to US forces in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.

The soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to US Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, US officials said.

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Moments later, Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, US officials said. He was found in good condition and able to walk.

The five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shi’ites in Afghanistan, were being transferred to the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state, where they will be subject to security restrictions, including a one-year travel ban.

All five Taliban members being released are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantánamo and would otherwise be among the last to leave.

Senior administration officials cautioned that the discussions over the prisoner swap, which were secretly restarted last fall after collapsing several months earlier, would not necessarily lead to the resumption of broader peace talks to end the 13-year war.

“This is the only issue we’ve discussed with the Taliban in recent months,” said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. “We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don’t have any promises to that effect.”

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A Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. US officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.

President Obama personally telephoned the soldier’s parents Saturday, shortly after Bergdahl was transferred to the US military; the Bergdahl family was in Washington after a visit for Memorial Day.

“Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield,” Obama said in a statement.

Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of the Hailey, Idaho, soldier, have waged a tireless campaign for their son’s release, and have sometimes criticized the Obama administration’s lack of action. But in a statement from the family released Saturday, they praised the US and Qatari governments for their help.

“We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” they said. “Today, we are ecstatic!”

During an appearance later Saturday in the Rose Garden, Obama said that while Bergdahl was gone, ‘‘he was never forgotten.’’ The president was joined at the White House by the soldier’s parents.

Bergdahl’s father thanked all those who took part in his son’s recovery, saying it was difficult to put his feelings into words.

Negotiations and internal deliberations over the potential for a swap have waxed and waned for years, but they intensified in the past several weeks as an agreement appeared within reach, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Among other complications, there was a potential legal obstacle: Congress has imposed statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees out of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

The statutes say Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel must determine that a transfer is in the national security interest, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and that he must notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of his determination.

In this case, the administration did not notify Congress ahead of time, officials said. They noted that Obama has said that the transfer restrictions are a potentially unconstitutional intrusion on his powers as the commander-in-chief. Last December, he issued a signing statement saying that he could lawfully override them.

An administration official said the circumstances of a fast-moving prisoner exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers.

The top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the release of the Taliban prisoners “clearly violated laws” governing the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

The transfer reduces the detainee population at Guantánamo to 149. They include 12 Afghan nationals — each of whom was deemed far less important and dangerous than the five who were included in the swap.

Bergdahl was believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.

The circumstances of how he was separated from his unit and captured have remained a mystery.

Hopes for Bergdahl’s release were lifted once again last November when the Taliban signaled it was prepared to engage the United States on the limited issue of a prisoner swap, but not on wider issues including reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan, a senior administration official said.

The discussions resumed with the Qatari government acting as an intermediary for messages between the sides.

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