An American soldier taken prisoner by the Taliban in Afghanistan was freed yesterday after five years in captivity.
American government officials said Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to US Special Operations forces inside Afghanistan by a group of 19 Taliban.
The freeing of the only American soldier taken prisoner by the Taliban during the Afghan conflict was reported to have been in exchange for the release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
American officials said Sgt Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk. He is expected to be transferred to Bagram airfield, and then on to the US.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Sgt Bergdahl’s recovery “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield”.
Mr Obama, who personally telephoned the soldiers’ parents yesterday, added: “On behalf of the American people, I was honoured to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal.”
Sgt Bergdahl, who reportedly broke down after boarding a helicopter following the transfer, was serving as a private in the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, when he went missing on 30 June 2009, near the town of Yahya Khel in south-east Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. He was promoted to sergeant in 2011.
There have been conflicting accounts of how he got separated from his unit and captured. On 18 July 2009, the Taliban released a video showing Sgt Bergdahl, from Idaho, with his head shaved, saying he feared he would never see his family again, and explaining that he was captured when he fell behind on a patrol.
Later reports quoted unnamed US officials saying Sgt Bergdahl “just walked off” his base with three Afghans. In another report, Rolling Stone quoted emails Sgt Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggested he was disillusioned with the mission in Afghanistan and was considering desertion. Both these reports are unsubstantiated.
Sgt Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s north-west frontier. Talks on the exchange resumed in earnest about a week ago with Qatari officials who were acting as intermediaries.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sgt Bergdahl would be given “all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family”.
The five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were being transferred into the custody of officials from Qatar.