The Pacific island of Palau has welcomed six Chinese Uighur prisoners from the US detention centre at Guantanmo Bay, officials say. (photo, from bbc.co.uk)
They have “arrived to freedom”, said lawyers for three of them early on Sunday.
In June, Palau agreed to take up to a dozen Uighurs. Captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan, they are no longer classified as “enemy combatants”.
China wants them to be returned there, but the US says that due to the risk of mistreatment, it cannot repatriate them.
Beijing has frequently cracked down on Uighur dissidents, accusing them of seeking an independent homeland in the western province of Xinjiang.
Nine other Uighur detainees were resettled, five in Albania in 2006 and four in Bermuda last June.
Three of the six Uighurs released from Guantanamo on Saturday are represented by a law firm that confirmed that they had arrived safely at their new home in the main town of Koror.
“These men want nothing more than to live peaceful, productive lives in a free, democratic nation safe from oppression by the Chinese,” Eric Tirschwell of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel told the Associated Press.
“Thanks to Palau, which has graciously offered them a temporary home, they now have that chance,” he added.
The men have already begun learning English and look forward to become productive members of the community, said Mr Tirschwell.
The men will live in a three-storey building which is a five-minute walk from Koror’s only mosque, one of two on the island.
The President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, told the BBC that the Uighurs would be given a temporary home for as long as two years.
“Initially, they will be attending a crash course in the English language and of our culture and history for a couple of months. We’ll interview them to find out about their skills, and then try to place them where they’ll be gainfully employed,” he said.
The Muslim population of Palau is mostly composed of migrant workers from Bangladesh. Many of them face being deported due to lapsed work permits.
The island has offered to take six of the seven other Uighurs still being held at Guantanamo. One did not receive an invitation because of concerns about his mental health.
US Supreme Court
Last year, the American defence department decided that the Uighur detainees were not enemy combatants. However they were refused the right to settle in the US.
Palau is a former US trust territory. It’s an archipelago of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets that is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 800km (500 miles) east of the Philippines.
In 1994, Palau became independent but retained close ties with Washington by signing a Compact of Free Association with the US. The tiny nation relies heavily on the US for aid and defence, and does not have diplomatic relations with China.
Before the latest departures from Guantanamo, the US Supreme Court, rejected the government’s position, saying it would hear an appeal by the Uighurs, who have argued that they should be released onto US soil.
Currently, there are 215 detainees remaining at the prison camp. President Barack Obama has pledged to close it by 22 January.