Six Yemenis held for more than a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo have been flown to Oman for resettlement, the Pentagon said Saturday, the latest step in President Barack Obama's slow push to close the facility.
The release came a week after Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he was working with the White House on a proposal for Congress on shutting the internationally condemned jail at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where most prisoners have been held without charges or trial.
Though Obama continues to face obstacles from lawmakers to his longtime goal of emptying the prison, the latest transfer — this year's largest — whittles Guantanamo’s inmate population to 116, less than half the number from when Obama took office in 2009.
No further large transfers are imminent, according to a senior U.S. official, though efforts continue to repatriate prisoners or settle them elsewhere.
Obama has often renewed his pledge to shut the prison, but lawmakers have restricted his ability to transfer prisoners and have barred him from moving them to the U.S. mainland.
The administration remains intent on seeking to empty the Guantanamo jail by the 2017 end of Obama's presidency.
The six men sent to Oman, a sultanate bordering Yemen, were identified as low-risk detainees cleared years ago for transfer. They had been held at Guantanamo for about 13 years.
The six new transfers include Emad Abdullah Hassan, who has been on hunger strikes since 2007 in protest of his confinement without charge since 2002. In court filings protesting force-feeding practices, Hassan said detainees have been force-fed up to a gallon at a time of nutrients and water. The U.S. accuses him of being one of many bodyguards to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and of being part of a group planning to attack NATO and American troops after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
Oman's state news agency ONA reported that six Yemenis had arrived in Muscat for "temporary residency" under the direction of Sultan Qaboos, the veteran head of state who has driven Oman's policy of regional mediation.
"This step came at the request of the U.S. government to help settle the cases of those held at this prison (Guantanamo) and in consideration of their humanitarian conditions," the agency quoted an Omani Foreign Ministry source as saying.
"The United States is grateful to the government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Defense Department said in a statement announcing the transfer. "The United States coordinated with the government of Oman to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
The 69 Yemenis still held at Guantanamo make up more than half of the remaining detainees, but Washington has ruled out sending them home because of the chaotic security situation in their homeland.
Iranian-backed Houthi forces have seized large parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, and a Saudi-led coalition is trying to restore Yemen's exiled president to power.
The only other option has been to find third countries to accept the Yemenis. The last transfer was in January, when the U.S. sent four Yemenis to Oman and one to Estonia.
"We recognize the current security situation in Yemen presents serious challenges to our ability to repatriate Yemenis," the senior U.S. official said.