Menu

Politics

Palau Prepares to Accept Chinese Gitmo Detainees

KOROR, Palau - Thirteen Chinese Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay can expect a life of farm work, fishing and English-language classes if they are relocated to the tiny Pacific island republic of Palau, its president said Saturday.

The Uighurs, from China's far western region of Xinjiang, were among 22 Chinese Muslims picked up in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 by the U.S. military.

Political pressure has compelled President Barack Obama keep the Uighurs from being set free in the U.S., and he has asked other countries to take them in. The first overtures to Palau were made late last month.

President Johnson Toribiong said last week some of the men are hesitant about accepting the offer because they fear Palau cannot shield them from China, which considers them separatists and has demanded they be sent home for trial.

Toribiong said the men asked: "'Do you have an army? Do you have a navy?' because they are concerned about their safety from the Chinese."

U.S. officials have said the men could be executed if they are returned to China and have refused to send them there.

It remains unclear when, if ever, the Uighurs might arrive. Both Palau and U.S. officials have previously said that the transfer was not guaranteed. It is also not clear how much say the Uighurs have in their final destination and whether they could reject a move to Palau.

Toribiong said Saturday the Guantanamo detainees could live in two remote locations on sparsely populated Babeldaob, Palau's largest island. One area is a ranch and the other a farm where the men can work. They can also go fishing, he said.

Toribiong has directed the head of Palau Community College to prepare an education plan for the Uighurs, with the initial focus on teaching them English. English is one of the country's official languages.

"We need to make their resettlement to Palau as smooth as possible," Toribiong told The Associated Press in an interview.

Officials in rural Ngeremlengui state sent Toribiong a letter Thursday offering to take in the Uighurs.

"If they want to work on the farm, then they can work on the farm," said Governor Wilson Ongos. "If they want to go fishing, they can go fishing."

Though the men had concerns about moving to Palau, all appeared open to the idea, said Palau Community College President Patrick Tellei, who was part of the nation's four-person delegation that recently visited Guantanamo.

With a population of 20,000, Palau is one of the world's smallest countries. It has no diplomatic relations with China and instead recognizes Taiwan. Its military protector and primary financial patron is the U.S.

Toribiong's decision to take in the Uighurs, made in consultation with Palau's legislative leaders and its two traditional high chiefs, has been met with a mixed reaction locally. Some consider it a fitting gesture of Palauan hospitality.

Others, including a former president, question why Palau is taking in men the U.S. refuses to set free on American soil.