Afghanistan released 65 accused militants from a former U.S.-controlled prison on Thursday despite protests from the American military, which says the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.
The prisoners’ release risks further complicating relations between the U.S. and Afghan governments, already at odds over Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s delay in signing a security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond 2014.
The prisoners were freed just after 9 a.m. from the Parwan Detention Facility near the U.S. Bagram Air Field, about 28 miles north of the capital, Kabul, according to prison spokesman Maj. Nimatullah Khaki.
They were laughing and smiling as they boarded a bus to leave the facility, he said.
Karzai ordered the detainees released several weeks ago, less than a year after his government took over the prison from U.S. troops.
The decision prompted angry denunciations from Washington. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say some of the men released are responsible for killing or wounding dozens of international and Afghan soldiers, as well as making bombs that have killed civilians.
Calling them "dangerous individuals," a statement from U.S. forces in Afghanistan said, "They have killed Afghan men, women and children," and added that the coalition believes other alleged insurgents released from Parwan earlier "have already returned to the fight."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the prisoners' release a "deeply regrettable" event that ran counter to a 2012 agreement on detainees.
"The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision," the embassy said in a statement.
Abdul Shakor Dadras, head of the Afghan board charged with reviewing the prisoners' cases, said their detention had been unjustified from the outset, despite information put forward by the United States.
"We could not find any evidence to prove that these 65 people are criminals, according to Afghan law," Dadras told Reuters Television.
The prisoners were transferred to Afghan authority last year as part of the U.S. and NATO transition out of Afghanistan. A coalition of foreign forces has been battling the Taliban since the group was ousted from power in 2001.
Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory" where innocent Afghans have been tortured into hating their country. The president had long demanded that the U.S. turn over the prison to Afghan authorities, a process completed last March after lengthy negotiations — largely over American concerns that some of the most dangerous detainees would go free.
Among those believed to have walked free Thursday morning was Mohammad Wali, who the U.S. military says is a suspected Taliban explosives expert who allegedly placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and international forces.
The military said Wali had been biometrically linked to two roadside explosions and had a latent fingerprint match on another improvised explosive device. He had also tested positive for explosives residue.
Others in the group include Nek Mohammad, who the U.S. says was captured with extensive weapons, and a man identified as Ehsanullah, who is claimed to have been biometrically matched to a roadside bomb and tested positive for explosives residue.
The release has further strained the already tense relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, as Karzai stalls on signing a bilateral security agreement that would allow a few thousand U.S. troops to remain in the country past 2014.
It is unclear whether Karzai will sign the agreement. A report from Reuters on Thursday said he had given assurances to Germany’s foreign minister that he would sign the deal. Other agencies reported that he has yet to sign it.
The agreement is largely meant to help train Afghan security forces to take over the fight against the Taliban nearly 13 years after the military intervention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S.
Karzai had tentatively endorsed the bilateral security deal, but after it was approved in November by a council of tribal elders known as a loya jirga, he refused to sign it — saying he wants his successor to decide after the April 5 presidential election. Karzai cannot run because he is ineligible to serve a third term.
The U.S. wants the deal signed as soon as possible because it needs time to prepare to keep thousands of U.S. troops in the country for up to a decade.
Al Jazeera and wire services