WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Palau agreed to accept 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay, indicating a resolution to one of the major obstacles to closing the U.S. prison camp.
Yesterday's announcement by the Pacific archipelago, which would clear the last of the Uighurs from the camp in Cuba, was a major step toward the Obama administration's goal of finding new homes for detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing but cannot go home for fear of ill treatment.
The United States feared that the minority Uighurs would be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China, but the Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them on U.S. soil as free men.
The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the Pentagon determined that they were not "enemy combatants."
President Johnson Toribiong said the decision of Palau - one of a handful of countries that do not recognize China and maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan - was "a humanitarian gesture" intended to help the detainees restart their lives.
His archipelago, with a population of about 20,000, will accept up to 17 of the detainees subject to periodic review, Toribiong said in a statement.
"This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau," he said.
China, which has demanded that the 17 men be extradited to their homeland and which pressured countries not to accept them, had no immediate reaction.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support, and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.
Palau, a former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, has retained close ties with the United States since independence in 1994 when it signed a Free Compact of Association with the United States.
While it is independent, it relies heavily on U.S. aid and depends on the United States for its defense. Native-born Palauans are allowed to enter the United States without passports or visas.
With eight main islands and more than 250 islets, Palau is best known for diving and tourism. It is about 500 miles east of the Philippines.