Guantanamo population now under 100 as 10 leave for Oman
The prison population at Guantanamo Bay has fallen below 100 for the first time since America's detention centre for terror suspects opened in 2002.
Ten prisoners from Yemen have been released and sent to Oman for resettlement, officials said, portraying it as a significant milestone in the long-stalled effort to shut the base in Cuba.
The release, among the largest on a single day under President Barack Obama, leaves 93 prisoners at the jail which holds men suspected of links to al Qaida and the Taliban.
Lee Wolosky, the US state department's special envoy for Guantanamo closure, said the America expected to transfer the remaining prisoners who are cleared to leave, about a third of the total, by the summer.
Guantanamo held nearly 680 prisoners at its peak in 2003 and about 245 when Mr Obama took office, pledging to close it as a symbol of over-reach in the war against terrorism and a needless propaganda symbol for enemies of the United States.
Defence secretary Ash Carter announced the release of the Yemenis at a change-of-command ceremony in Miami, Florida at US Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo.
He said the administration would submit a plan to Congress, where many want to keep the prison open, to move those who cannot be freed to a jail within the United States.
"Not everyone in Gitmo can be safely transferred to another country, so we need an alternative," Mr Carter said, using a common abbreviated name for the base on the south-eastern edge of Cuba.
Marine general John Kelly, who turned over the leadership of Southern Command to Vice Admiral Kurt Tidd on Thursday, said before the event that the military would still need a place to hold captured detainees indefinitely, but conceded that as the population dwindled "Guantanamo will probably close sooner rather than later".
The 10 men who left Guantanamo on Tuesday were among several dozen from Yemen who could not be sent back to their homeland, which is embroiled in a civil war.
All were deemed low-level enemy combatants and cleared for transfer since at least 2010. The prisoners included one who was 17 when captured and another who the government admitted had only briefly served as a Taliban medic. None was ever charged.
David Remes, a lawyer for three of the men, said two, Mukhtar al Warafi and Saeed Hatim, got down on their knees and prayed in December when they learned they would be released. The third, Fahmi Ahmed, at first was not sure whether to believe it and wanted proof when he got word this week.
"The men learned to lower their expectations and indeed to have no expectations so that everything good is a surprise," Mr Remes said. "But this was a joyful surprise."
But Senator Kelly Ayotte, a prominent advocate for keeping the detention centre open, criticised the decision to transfer the men to Oman, which borders their homeland along the Arabian Sea.
Congress has banned the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, as well as to the United States, a law the White House is seeking to change.
"Any Obama administration decision to transfer a large number of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo to Oman would represent a thinly-veiled attempt to undercut the will of Congress and would further endanger the American people," Ms Ayotte said.
House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan noted that the most recent defence bill signed by Mr Obama prohibits the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to American soil, adding: "And that's not going to change any time soon."
Mr Carter said the decision to resettle the men in Oman was made only after a thorough security review and Ian Moss, Mr Wolosky's chief of staff, said it would be wrong to continue holding men just because of their Yemeni nationality.
"If we as a government have determined that an individual can and should be transferred from Guantanamo responsibly and we've identified an appropriate resettlement location, like Oman, then we will transfer them," he said.
Oman, which has cultivated closer ties to the US, has taken 20 foreign prisoners for resettlement, including 10 last year.