WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Palau's president said Thursday his tiny Pacific island state considered human rights — and not China's reaction — when it agreed to take in 17 Chinese Muslim separatists detained at Guantanamo Bay.
The archipelago agreed to a U.S. request to resettle the detained members of China's Uighur minority out of humanitarian concerns and because it believed that their continued detention at the U.S. facility on Cuba was unlawful, Palau President Johnson Toribiong said in a telephone interview.
The Pentagon has determined that the detainees were not "enemy combatants." However, the Obama administration has faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them on U.S. soil as free men and has sought alternatives abroad. Palau agreed Wednesday to temporarily resettle the detainees.
China has demanded that the men be extradited to their homeland and pressured countries not to accept them.
"We did not consider (China's reaction) at the time we gave our positive response to the United States," Toribiong told The Associated Press.
"We understand these 17 people are not terrorists but separatists from their national government in China," Toribiong said in an interview Thursday. "That's a matter between the United States and China."
Palau also did not consider its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, "because we focused on the request of the United States and the rights of these detainees," he said.
"If China objects to their being in Palau I would think their objection was also directed at their detention in Guantanamo Bay," he added. Palau would leave any reaction from China "for the United States and for China."
"These people should be freed and their imprisonment or detention appears to me at this time to be unlawful or illegitimate," Toribiong said.
He said Palau would send a mission headed by Ministery of State Sandra S. Pierantozzi to Guantanamo Bay to assess the Uighurs.