Bergdahl's hometown cancels welcome celebration

The small hometown of released US captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has canceled plans for a celebration later this month, citing security concerns after the town was inundated with negative emails and angry phone calls.

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Organisers have released a statement saying that because of national media attention on Bergdahl's story, they expect a significant increase in the number of people planning to attend the event - some to protest, and some in support of the Bergdahl family.

The organisers say the Idaho town of just 8000 people doesn't have the infrastructure to support a big event.

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A debate is raging in the US over the freeing of Bergdahl in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees.

Questions remain about the events that led to his capture, with some critics calling Bergdahl a deserter.

Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said the event has been misrepresented in the national media, leading people to think it's some sort of hero's welcome.

"If you had 10,000 people, 5000 on one side and 5000 on the other, then just due to the national attention we don't know what to expect," Gunter said.

The town has had an event called "Bring Bowe Back" for several years. That commemoration of his capture was scheduled for June 28, but when news of Bergdahl's release broke, organisers quickly announced it would be a welcome home party instead.

The Taliban released video of the weekend handover yesterday, showing a tense-looking Bergdahl being warned by one of his Taliban captors: "Don't come back to Afghanistan. You won't make it out alive next time."

Then, the American soldier, wearing traditional loose-fitting Afghan trousers and a long tunic, was led away to a US military helicopter, where he was patted down for explosives or other weapons before he was allowed to climb aboard.

The weekend handover was documented in a 17-minute video emailed to news organisations yesterday by the Taliban, which touted the exchange of Bergdahl for five Guantanamo detainees as a victory, while debate rages in the US over the deal and whether the 28-year-old from Hailey, Idaho, should be punished as a deserter.

Republican lawmakers and others have complained that Congress should have been consulted, that the prisoner swap will embolden the Taliban to snatch more US soldiers, and that the released Afghans will filter back to the battlefield.

In Washington, Rob Williams, the US national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate intelligence committee this week that four of the men are expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was classified.

Under the terms of the swap, the five Taliban detainees will have to stay for a year in Qatar, where officials gave assurances that the men will be monitored.

The five were some of the most senior Afghans held at Guantanamo.

They include the former Taliban interior minister, who was described in a US case file leaked by WikiLeaks as having had close ties to Osama bin Laden; a commander whose file says he was present at a 2001 prison riot that led to the death of CIA operative Johnny Michael Spann; the Taliban's former deputy chief of intelligence; and a former member of a joint Taliban-al-Qaida cell described in US documents as "one of the most significant former Taliban leaders" held at Guantanamo.

In Qatar, the men will be in a position to communicate with comrades in Afghanistan, one of the senior congressional aides said. "They are going to be able to see whoever they want, so they will be able to communicate by courier," the official said.

The video of Bergdahl after five years in captivity shows a well-choreographed release, with the American sitting in a silver pickup truck while more than a dozen Taliban fighters with machine guns and faces largely covered by scarves stand guard nearby and on a rocky desert hill overlooking the site.

A thin-looking Bergdahl, his head and face clean-shaven, blinks frequently and looks tense as he peers out of the truck. At one point, he wipes his eyelid as if to get rid of some dust.

A Black Hawk helicopter then lands, and two Taliban fighters, one carrying a white cloth tied to a stick, lead Bergdahl, now wearing a gray shawl and carrying a plastic bag, halfway toward the chopper.

Three apparent members of US special operations forces approach the group, shake hands with the two Taliban fighters and lead Bergdahl toward the helicopter.

One of the three men then pats down Bergdahl, while another takes the plastic bag from him and drops it on the ground before they all climb into the helicopter.

According to a voiceover on the video, the handover took place around 4pm Saturday in Khost province, near the Pakistani border.

As the helicopter approaches, one of the Taliban men is heard warning Bergdahl not to come back. "You won't make it out alive next time," the man says in Pashto as some of the other fighters are heard laughing.

As if to underscore the point, similar words appear on the video in broken English: "Don come back to afghanistan."

Bergdahl was reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany.

A Taliban statement, also distributed to the media, quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement for the movement. President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a "sacred" obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades have complained that US soldiers died during the search for him after he walked off his base, unarmed, in 2009. The military has not confirmed such a link.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday that the Army will review the case, and he cautioned against drawing conclusions until that is done.

"It's not in the interests of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl's family ... to presume anything. We don't do that in the United States. We rely on facts," he said at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.

- AP

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