US military secretly sending foreign fighters to home nations


New York : Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, nearly all in the past two years, as part of an effort to reduce the burden of detaining and interrogating foreign fighters captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, The New York Times said citing US military officials.

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The system is similar in some ways to the rendition program used by the Central Intelligence Agency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States to secretly transfer people suspected of being militants back to their home countries to be jailed and questioned.

But there are significant differences; the prisoners can block their transfers to home countries, military officials say.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross interview all detainees before they are returned to their home countries, said Bernard Barrett, a Red Cross spokesman.

These militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by U.S. Special Operations forces, the military officials said.

They said that foreign intelligence officers had been allowed access to these camps to question militants there, as a prelude to the transfers.

In interviews, the military officials said the transfers represented an effort by the United States to find a better way to detain and interrogate the militants.

The US military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the secret prisons abroad run by the CIA have drawn criticism, and there have been concerns over the use of Iraqi and Afghan jails.

Some have questioned whether those facilities should play any future role in housing terrorism suspects.

As a rationale for the approach, the US officials said that language skills and cultural knowledge in most cases made the Saudis, Egyptians and others best suited to question the captured suspects, and best equipped to act on any intelligence they provide about militant networks in their countries.

The effort was described in interviews over the past six weeks with more than a dozen current and former U.S. military, intelligence and foreign policy officials.

Unlike in Afghanistan, where many prisoners captured by US forces were sent to Guantanamo Bay in the first five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, prisoners captured by the United States in Iraq have never been sent to US detention centers outside Iraq, and until The New York Times began to conduct interviews for this article in July, military officials had not acknowledged that any had been repatriated.

US military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored.

While the militants are in US custody, Pentagon rules allow them to be held at the Special Operations sites in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks, with extensions permitted with the approval of Defense Secretary Robert Gates or his representative, military officials said. About 30 to 40 foreign prisoners are held at the Iraq camp at any given time, the officials said; they did not provide an estimate for the Afghan camp but suggested that the number was smaller.

Saudi and Egyptian intelligence officers have been permitted to interrogate militants at the camps, although US military officials say that the foreign interrogators who operate in the US camps are monitored by American soldiers and that they must follow American rules.

They said restrictions on interrogation techniques and on the length of secret detentions were carefully regulated, a response to problems within the US military detention system, including the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Special Operations site in Balad, Iraq, that emerged beginning in 2004.

The officials said the prisoners who were repatriated were sent home only after being moved into the general US-run prison population, a step that meant that their names were reported to the Red Cross.

In all, they said, 214 prisoners in Iraq and at least two more in Afghanistan have been transferred to the custody of their home countries over the past four years, and while the Iraqi government has helped to facilitate some of the transfers, they were not subject to the approval of either the Iraqi government or the Afghan government.