US 'close to freeing four Britons held at Guantanamo Bay'

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Washington and London appeared to have reached a deal last night to release the four remaining British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay as part of a wider transfer of prisoners to their own countries. An announcement could be made within days.

Washington and London appeared to have reached a deal last night to release the four remaining British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay as part of a wider transfer of prisoners to their own countries. An announcement could be made within days.

Three years after the prison camp was established, American authorities are poised to return the four men to British custody. It is not clear whether Britain has given any undertaking on what it will do with them once they are returned.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: "We've been seeking to address the security concerns that the US Government has over the position of the four detainees. [But] we've never given a running commentary on the sensitive discussions we're having."

A Government source said: "[A deal over their release will happen] sooner rather than further away".

The Government claims it has been discussing the fate of the Britons at Guantanamo Bay from the moment they were taken there. Some have been imprisoned for the best part of three years - much of that time in solitary confinement.

Last spring, five other Britons being held were released into UK custody and promptly released without charge. In recent months, campaigners have stepped up efforts to have the remaining men released amid growing evidence that prisoners have been subjected to torture and abuse.

Last week, the US Defence Department announced a new investigation into allegations of abuse and torture at the detention centre, which currently holds nearly 550 detainees from around 40 countries, mostly captives from the war in Afghanistan.

Lawyers representing the remaining Britons - Feroz Abassi, Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga - have accused the Government of doing nothing to help secure their release and said it has stood by while they were subjected to physical and psychological abuse.

Louise Christian, who represents Mr Abassi and Mr Mubanga, said: "This [news] gives me hope. When they released the five last March, I was the last to know."

The release of the Britons is part of the transfer of many of the 549 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to their own countries, according to the Financial Times. At the same time, Americais building a long-term prison for around 200 prisoners from the so-called "war on terror" whom it will not release even though it does not have sufficient evidence to charge them.

A Pentagon spokesman, Major Michael Shavers, said: "We are in negotiations with a number of countries in addition to the UK with regard to transferring detainees from Guantanamo. As we have done in the past, if a transfer is done we will announce it when it happens." Following their release last spring, three of the Britons - Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - the so-called Tipton Three - helped publish a lengthy report which detailed widespread abuse and sexual humiliation at Guantanamo Bay. One told how he was interrogated while a gun was held to his head.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said last night: "It's high time this issue was resolved. British subjects have been detained in circumstances which violated all acceptable legal principles. Where the civil rights of British citizens, however serious the allegations against them, are being ignored, a British government has an overwhelming obligation to seek to protect them."

An Amnesty International spokesman said: "In the absence of proper charges and trials, the release of Britons held at Guantanamo Bay is long, long overdue. It has been an absolute scandal that the US has held hundreds of people in indefinite confinement in this way for up to three years. During this time, Guantanamo has become an icon of lawlessness."

News of a pending deal to release the last four Britons came only days after Azmat Begg, 66, launched his latest campaign for the freedom of his son.

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