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US soldier held by Taliban released in swap for Guantánamo detainees

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive in Afghanistan for nearly five years, was released in deal brokered by Qatar

The only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan has been freed and is in U.S. custody as part of a prisoner swap with Guantánamo detainees, the White House said Saturday.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release was part of a negotiation that includes the release of five Afghans held at the controversial U.S. camp in Cuba. Bergdahl was transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, from where he was due to be flown to Germany for treatment before returning to the United States.

Securing the soldier's release had been a priority of the U.S. and formed part of a wider push for reconciliation with the Taliban ahead of a large-scale troop drawdown at the end of 2014, officials suggested Saturday.

The handover operation took place close to the Pakistan border, and was conducted in the presence of Taliban fighters, but with no gunfire being exchanged. 

Bergdahl become emotional after he become aware that his ordeal as a captive was over, a U.S. defense official said.

"Once the was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, 'SF?'" the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces.

"The operators replied loudly, 'Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time.' And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down."

His family were told of Bergdahl's release by President Barack Obama.  “We were so joyful and relieved when Pres. Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe  is finally coming home," his parents said in a statement.

They later stood stood with Obama as he gave a short statement on the release in the Rose Garden.

"While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten," Obama said.

The soldier's father Bob Bergdahl, delivered a message in both English and Pashto, the language spoken by his son's captors.

Switching back to English, he said "the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended."

Bergdahl was said to be in good condition and able to walk during the operation. The exchange was mediated by the government of Qatar, the U.S. confirmed.

"I appreciate the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to put these measures in place, and I want to thank him for his instrumental role in facilitating the return of Sgt. Bergdahl," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. Obama likewise thanked Qatar for its role.

A senior Obama administration official told Al Jazeera that talks to secure the release of Bergdahl resumed only recently, but were part of long-standing efforts to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban.

"Since May 2011 the recovery of Sgt. Bergdahl has been a central element of reconciliation efforts," the official said, adding: "Several weeks ago, an opportunity arose to resume talks on Sgt. Bergdahl, and we seized it.  This was an opportunity that only recently became possible."

Officials said the recovery operation was conducted by a few dozen special forces supported by "multiple helicopters, overhead surveillance and reconnaissance."

It took place in the presence of 19 Taliban. After being handed to the U.S., Bergdahl was airlifted to Bagram Air Field.

He will be transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for medical care, before being reunited with his family in Texas, where he will continue to be assessed by doctors at San Antonio Medical Center.

Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, had been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He is thought to have been captured by members of the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.

The Haqqani 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.

But a degree of mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture. 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 five Afghan Guantánamo detainees released to secure Bergdahl's freedom — named Saturday as Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mohammad Fazl — were transported off the base Saturday morning, and were said to be under Qatari control. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.

Although welcoming news of Bergdahl's release, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — a leading Republican foreign affairs voice and a former prisoner of war — aired concern over the Guantánamo end of the exchange.

"These particular individuals are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands," he said, adding: "I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan."

A U.S. officials stressed that the detainees were transferred after it was assessed that they did not present any threat to U.S.

The release comes as the U.S. prepares for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan following 12 years of conflict.

Earlier this week, Obama confirmed that the U.S. intends to keep 9,800 U.S. personnel on the ground after the final withdrawal of combat forces in December and then will scale back most of those forces by the end of 2016.

The two-year plan is contingent on the Afghan government signing a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. While outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign the agreement, U.S. officials are confident that either candidate seeking to replace him would give his approval.

The plan calls for the U.S. military to draw down from its current force of 32,000 by the start of next year. The remaining troops, dispatched throughout Afghanistan, would focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan security forces. They would not be engaged in combat missions.

"Our objectives are clear: disrupting threats posed by Al-Qaeda, supporting Afghan security forces and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own," President Barack Obama said in a speech at the White House on Tuesday. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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