WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama said he has suspended transfers of freed Guantanamo Bay inmates to Yemen following the Christmas Day airliner attack, but renewed his vow to close the notorious prison.
The administration is under intense pressure from domestic critics not to send more detainees back to Yemen, because of fears they will slip back into extremism in the Arab nation where Obama says the thwarted bombing was planned.
His decision whipped up further uncertainty over his drive to close the detention center in Cuba. Obama had demanded the closure of the facility within a year of taking office, but the deadline will slip later this month.
"Given the unsettled situation, I've spoken to the attorney general and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time," Obama said in a televised statement.
But the president sent an immediate message to critics who oppose his decision to close Guantanamo and many people abroad who support it, saying he was determined to follow through on his promise.
"Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda," Obama said.
"In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Obama said, naming the Yemen-based group that he has blamed for training and alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the decision will increase the number of prisoners from the camp that could be moved to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois that has been selected by the administration to hold Guantanamo Bay inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Obama's decision was "unwise, unjust and... will prolong a shameful chapter in American history without making Americans any safer."
Human Rights Watch said the move raised "serious concerns" about the prisoners' rights, and added: "Continuing to hold Yemenis without charge only increases resentment against the United States and hands Al Qaeda a recruiting tool."
As recently as Sunday, Obama's top anti-terrorism official John Brennan said that the United States would continue to repatriate Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen, "at the right time and the right pace and in the right way."
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has consistently argued that Obama is wrong to attempt to close Guantanamo Bay, and said the Christmas Day attack exposed contradictions in his decision.
"Given the determined nature of the threat from Al Qaeda, it made little sense to transfer detainees from the secure facility at Guantanamo back to Yemen," McConnell said.
"Guantanamo remains the proper place for holding terrorists, especially those who may not be able to be detained as securely in a third country.
"The president should revisit the reasoning behind his decision, made on his first day in office ... particularly now that the administration has recognized that it has no choice but to detain some foreign fighters indefinitely."
Close to half of the 198 detainees left at Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen.
Seven Yemeni detainees have already been sent home by the Obama administration, including six in December. Several others were repatriated during George W. Bush's administration.
A high-level Obama administration task force is working to determine the fate of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo, including some of the most wanted terror suspects.Related article: US court rules on terror suspects
Some inmates will face trial before military or civilian courts and others will be detained indefinitely because they are considered too dangerous to release but cannot be tried because evidence against them is scant or tainted.
Three US senators warned last week of a possible security disaster if Washington transferred detainees back to Yemen without guarantees from Sanaa that they will not return to the battlefield.
The senators -- including Republican John McCain, defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential election -- said Said Ali al-Shihri, whom they described as "AQAP's longstanding deputy," was held in Guantanamo but released in 2007.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »