China's Guantanamo inmates bound for new life in Pacific paradise

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The Independent Online

They were plucked from their ancient Silk Road home in central Asia eight years ago and sent to Guantanamo Bay as part of the "war on terror". Now cleared of being enemy combatants, the 17 Chinese Uighurs, who once lived about as far away from the ocean as it is possible to live, find themselves bound for a new life on the remote Pacific island of Palau.

The 1.6 million sq km of their home province, Xinjiang, is a major earthquake zone, which includes three deserts as well as the famed ancient trade route; the 350-island archipelago of Palau was only founded in 1994, has just 20,000 inhabitants and is a renowned scuba diving destination.

The relocation will be the biggest single release of Guantanamo detainees to date, and a major relief to US President Barack Obama, who has been searching for a way to resolve the prisoners' situation since he declared his intention to close the American military camp.

The transfer is not expected to be permanent. Palau's President Johnson Toribiong said it would be an act of compassion, and an affirmation of his country's bonds with the US. "This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau," President Toribiong said. Washington is set to donate $200m when a long-standing co-operation treaty is negotiated later this year.

The Uighurs, Chinese Muslims who come from an isolated region near the Afghan border, were cleared of being enemy combatants last September. But the Chinese government accuses the men of being separatists, and it is feared they could be persecuted if sent home.

Fears of souring diplomatic relations with Beijing have made it difficult for the US to find willing hosts. Albania accepted five Uighurs in 2006, but has refused to accept further detainees. But Palau is well placed to accept the men because it is also allied to Taiwan, and does not recognise China.