U.S. Says Taliban Prisoner Swap May Renew Talks with Movement as Mullah Omar Hails 'Big Victory'

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed hope Sunday the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl would lead to direct U.S. talks with the Taliban, as the extremist movement's leader hailed the prisoner swap as a “big victory.”

"It could, it might and we hope it will present an opening," Hagel said in an interview from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan with NBC's "Meet the Press."

Hagel noted that the United States had engaged in talks with the Taliban before, until they were broken off in 2012, and that it strongly supported an Afghan-led effort to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban.

"So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement," he said.

Bergdahl, 28, was released Saturday near the Afghan-Pakistani border after nearly five years in Taliban captivity, in a surprise development that came as the United States is winding down its 13-year intervention in Afghanistan.

Hagel credited Qatar and its emir with Bergdahl's release in a trade for five high-level Taliban militants held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Hagel denied that the United States had negotiated with terrorists, as Republican critics are charging, and defended the trade as an effort to save Bergdahl's life.

"This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years," he said. "And let's focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family."

Meanwhile, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar hailed Sunday the prisoner swap as a "big victory."

"I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahideen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory regarding the release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison," he said in a rare statement.

"I thank the government of Qatar, especially its emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad (al-Thani), who made sincere efforts for release of these leaders and for their mediation and for hosting them," he added.

Mullah Omar was Afghanistan's de facto head of state during their 1996-2001 rule over Afghanistan. He has continued to lead the group's insurgency since they were ousted from power.

His current whereabouts are unconfirmed but some observers believe he is hiding inside Pakistan.

The five transferred Taliban detainees have been named by the U.S. State Department as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.

A Taliban source in the Pakistani city of Quetta told Agence France Presse that the five had been officials in the Taliban regime driven out by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and that they remained influential.

Later on Sunday, the United States defended its decision on the prisoner swap. Republican lawmakers have sharply criticized the move, saying it sets a bad precedent and endangers U.S. soldiers still in Afghanistan.

Some have even suggested that the administration of President Barack Obama may have broken the law by failing to notify Congress 30 days before the Guantanamo detainees were transferred.

But National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Bergdahl's health was deteriorating, and Washington had no choice but to do whatever was necessary to bring the 28-year-old army sergeant home.

"When we are in battles with terrorists and terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner still is a U.S. serviceman or woman. We still have an obligation to bring that person back," Rice told CNN.

"Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back."

Rice said the U.S. government acted on the chance to gain Bergdahl's freedom in part due to mounting concerns about his health.

"He had lost a good bit of weight and we were very concerned that time was not something we could play with, that we needed to act when we had the opportunity," she said.

On the issue of congressional notification, Rice said Bergdahl's failing health had created an "acute urgency" to act, which made it "necessary and appropriate" not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement.

Following that requirement "would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sergeant Bergdahl would have been lost," she said, adding that Congress was notified before the detainees were transferred.

"We could not take the risk of losing the opportunity to bring him back safely."

Rice refused to provide specifics about the security arrangements made with Qatar about the five Taliban figures, reiterating only that their movements and activities would be restricted.

Meanwhile, an informed Qatari source said the five Taliban members will spend a year in the Gulf state.

"They will stay for one year in Qatar," the source told Agence France Presse, requesting not to be named.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said the Qatari government had given assurances of measures to protect U.S. national security in mediating the release of Sergeant Bergdahl in exchange for the Taliban prisoners, who arrived in Doha on Sunday afternoon.

A Taliban statement said earlier that the five men were transferred from Guantanamo Bay with the help of the government in Qatar where they have now joined their families, adding that the move had brought "great happiness and pleasure."

Later on Sunday, Bergdahl arrived in Germany, according to the U.S. military medical center there.

Bergdahl will now remain at the Landstuhl center in southern Germany while he continues what the U.S. army called his "reintegration process", the base said in a statement.

The base said there was "no pre-determined amount of time involved" for Bergdahl's recovery process, adding the medical staff at Landstuhl were "sensitive" to what he had gone through and would "proceed with his reintegration at a pace with which he is comfortable."

"The full focus of the Landstuhl team is to provide necessary medical care and a safe environment for his recovery," the statement added.

But Kabul called for the immediate release of the five detainees sent to Qatar, branding their transfer to a third country illegal.

The transfer of the five Taliban "goes against the laws", the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Under international laws, "no government can hand over a country's citizens to a third country as a prisoner," it said, adding that Kabul is "strongly protesting" the move.

"The government of Afghanistan ... calls for the release of its citizens so that they can, in accordance with international laws, enjoy their freedom," it added.

Source: Agence France Presse

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