Six Yemenis held for more than a decade at the US military prison at Guantanamo have been flown to Oman for resettlement, the Pentagon said on 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 US naval base in Cuba, where most prisoners have been held without charges or trial.
Though Obama continues to face obstacles from lawmakers to his long-time goal of emptying the prison, the latest transfer, this year’s largest, whittles Guantanamo’s inmate population to 116, less than half the number when he took office in 2009.
No further large transfers are imminent, said a senior US official, though efforts continue to repatriate prisoners or settle them elsewhere.
The six men sent to Oman, a sultanate bordering Yemen at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, were identified as low-risk detainees cleared years ago for transfer.
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.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels 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 United States 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 US official said.
The prison was opened by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, to house terrorism suspects rounded up overseas, many of them accused of belonging to al Qaeda or the Taliban.
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 US mainland.
The administration remains intent on seeking to empty the Guantanamo jail by the 2017 end of Obama’s presidency.
“We are working feverishly to transfer each of the 51 detainees currently approved for transfer,” said Ian Moss, a spokesman on Guantanamo issues at the State Department.
The Pentagon identified the six Yemenis flown to Oman as Idris Ahmad Abd Al Qadir Idris, age 35 or 36, captured in Pakistan; Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad Mas’ud, age 36 or 37, arrested in Pakistan in late 2001 after spending time in Afghanistan, Jalal Salam Awad Awad, age 41 or 42; Saa’d Nasser Moqbil Al Azani, age 35 or 36; Emad Abdallah Hassan, 35, and Muhammad Ali Salem Al Zarnuki.
All were held at Guantanamo for about 13 years, a database of government documents compiled by the New York Times and National Public Radio shows.