WATCH: (May 31, 2014) The American soldier was held captive by the Taliban for five years. In exchange for his release, Washington had to spring five Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay. Robin Stickley reports.
WASHINGTON – The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed from Taliban captivity in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Bergdahl’s recovery “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
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The handover followed secret and indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.
According to a senior defence official travelling with Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the letters “SF?” – asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war. The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Bergdahl was expected to be transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, then on to the United States.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
The official added that the U.S. still believes that Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
During an appearance Saturday in the Rose Garden, Obama says that while Bergdahl was gone, “he was never forgotten.” The president was joined at the White House by the soldier’s parents, Bob and Joni Bergdahl.
Bergdahl was turned over by the Taliban earlier Saturday in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees who were held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama says the U.S. “does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
Bergdahl’s father thanked all those who took part in his son’s recovery, saying it was difficult to put his feelings into words.
The five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo were still at the base as of Saturday morning, but were being transferred into the custody of Qatari officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from travelling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are believed to be:
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or desertion.
© The Canadian Press, 2014