KOROR, Palau - Palau's decision to take in 13 Guantanamo detainees is a humanitarian gesture from a country that prides itself on welcoming society's castaways.
It also appears to be about the money.
President Johnson Toribiong has repeatedly denied that this tiny Pacific archipelago stands to benefit financially in exchange for accepting the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs.
But the arrangement coincides with the start of talks to review the agreement that governs Palau's relationship with the United States - its most important strategic and financial benefactor.
Under the Compact of Free Association, U.S. aid to Palau from 1995 to 2009 was expected to exceed $852 million, according to a report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The aid has included direct funding and access to U.S. postal, aviation, and weather services.
It also paid for a huge, nine-year public-works project to build a 53-mile road girdling Palau's biggest island.
U.S. aid to Palau, a former U.N. trust territory 500 miles east of the Philippines, is vital to its economy. From 2000 to 2006, it accounted for more than a third of Palau's revenue.
Key parts of the compact, including the section on direct assistance, are facing a mandatory 15-year review and will expire Sept. 30 unless renewed. Negotiations on the compact began in early June and are continuing.
"Any independent-thinking person will say [the Uighurs] will have an effect [on the compact review], despite the fact that the politicians say it has nothing to do with it," Joshua Koshiba, head of Palau's negotiating team with Washington, said yesterday.
Palau, one of the world's smallest countries, with 20,000 people scattered over 190 square miles, made headlines last week after agreeing to President Obama's request to take 13 Uighurs after other countries turned him down.
In the midst of aid discussions, Palau is using the Uighurs to remind Washington it is a loyal friend. It could also benefit from a credibility boost after the GAO released an unflattering assessment of Palau's management of U.S. aid.
Koshiba, a former senator, blames the management problems on both his country and Washington, which he said gave little guidance - something he says Palau needed after living under foreign rule since the late 19th century.
Mark Bezner, U.S. charge d'affaires in Palau, said the compact "worked well" and he expected only minor changes.
Palau's president traveled to Washington in March and met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and lawmakers, seeking support for continued financial aid.
"That was when Palau sort of got onto the mental map of people in Washington," Bezner said.
The European Union agreed yesterday to help the White House "turn the page" on Guantanamo, saying individual EU nations would take an unspecified number of detainees.
In a joint statement, the EU and the United States said some EU nations were ready "to assist with the reception of certain former Guantanamo detainees, on a case-by-case basis." Some European nations already have taken a few detainees.
Hours later, after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, President Obama said Italy had agreed to take three of the Guantanamo Bay detainees.
- Associated Press