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White House defends release of Guantanamo detainees
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) June 02, 2014

Hero or deserter? Bergdahl debate rages in US
Washington (AFP) June 02, 2014 - US political and military officials warmly welcomed Bowe Bergdahl's release in Afghanistan, but questions about the circumstances of his kidnapping are becoming more insistent, with some soldiers accusing him of desertion.

From the White House to the Pentagon, officials have celebrated the recovery of the 28-year-old army sergeant from his Taliban captors, repeatedly citing the promise never to leave a soldier behind.

In his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, residents celebrated, with "Bowe's free at last" signs posted alongside the traditional yellow ribbons tied in a show of support for US troops.

But unease quickly set in in other quarters about just how Bergdahl was captured on June 30, 2009 in Afghanistan's eastern province of Paktika, where he was deployed at a forward operating base.

Some fellow soldiers, including members of Bergdahl's unit, have accused him of abandoning his post, and perhaps even deserting in a bid to flee to India.

"Every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth," Nathan Bradley Bethea wrote in the Daily Beast.

"And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down."

Six soldiers died during failed efforts in 2009 to recover Bergdahl, Bethea alleged.

Bergdahl -- then 23 and a member of Blackfoot Company, in the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment -- left the base on foot, leaving his helmet and rifle behind but taking a compass, he wrote.

"His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India," Bethea wrote, nevertheless adding: "I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy."

- 'He walked off' -

On Facebook, the group "Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero" -- which had more than 1,500 likes on Monday -- was circulating a petition asking the White House to punish Bergdahl for going AWOL (absent without leave).

The petition had 5,200 signatures at 2130 GMT.

"He walked off," former private Jose Baggett, another member of Blackfoot Company, told CNN. "He was there to protect us, and instead he decided to... go and do his own thing."

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Bergdahl had not been classified as a deserter or with AWOL status.

"He's been promoted twice since his capture. He was due another promotion in June to staff sergeant," Warren said.

"We got him home. Our creed is that we'll never leave a fallen comrade behind and we have fulfilled our creed in this case," the spokesman added.

"There's time in the future to handle all the other matters."

Beyond the praise and celebration, US officials have nevertheless acknowledged that the questions will eventually need answers.

"We still don't have a complete picture of what caused him to leave his base that night," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Bergdahl was transported on Sunday from Bagram air base north of Kabul to the Landstuhl military medical center in southern Germany for further treatment and evaluation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the Pentagon would take the lead in looking into "all of the circumstances surrounding his initial detention and his captivity."

Desertion during wartime, at least in theory, is punishable by death in the United States. On social media, many argued that after nearly five years in captivity, Bergdahl had perhaps suffered enough.

In 2004, Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, who deserted his post at the border between North and South Korea in 1965 and spent nearly 40 years in the North, was sentenced to 30 days in confinement and received a dishonorable discharge.

The US administration Monday defended the release of five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for a US soldier held by the Taliban, but also ruled out similar swaps for civilian prisoners.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took to the US morning talk shows to downplay the threat posed by the five men -- influential former officials of the Taliban regime that was toppled by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan -- freed in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl, who was the only US soldier held by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan, was freed on Saturday in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.

In exchange, the five Taliban prisoners were turned over to the Arab emirate where they will remain for a year, sparking criticism from some Republicans, who claimed they could return to the battlefield and pose a threat to Americans abroad.

"We have a history in this country of making sure that our prisoners of war are returned to us -- we don't leave them behind," Carney told CNN.

"And it's entirely appropriate, given the determination made by the secretary of defense, in consultation with the full national security team, that the threat potentially posed by the returned detainees was sufficiently mitigated to allow us to move forward and get Bowe Bergdahl back home where he belongs."

Carney added that a travel ban and monitoring was in effect, giving Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel "the confidence to make the determination he did."

- Unique circumstance -

The State Department also ruled out similar swaps for Americans held in foreign countries, and reiterated that Washington has a long tradition of not negotiating with terror groups.

"Sergeant Bergdahl is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict. That obviously is a unique circumstance," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

There were no plans, for example, to work out similar deals to free contractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba, or retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, believed to be held in Iran, she said.

"In any case, whether it's Alan Gross or Kenneth Bae or others who are detained American citizens, we take every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure their return home to the United States."

Cuba has called for the release of three of the remaining so-called Cuban Five arrested in 1998 for infiltrating the Key West Naval Air Station and Cuban exile groups in Miami, in return for releasing Gross.

Gross, 65, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba in 2011 after being convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state" for allegedly distributing communications equipment as a USAID contractor.

Bae, a private US citizen, is held in North Korea serving a 15-year hard labor sentence after being detained in November 2012 on charges of seeking to topple the North Korean government.

Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, Iran, seven years ago. The US government repeatedly said he was on a business trip, but news reports earlier this year said the CIA had been paying him to gather intelligence.

Iran has said it is not holding Levinson, and denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.

Psaki said in Bergdahl's case there had been "a near-term opportunity to save his life" which had arisen "only in the last week."

"We took steps needed to secure the return and release of a prisoner of war who was a member of the military, and that's why we made the decisions we did," she added.


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