KOROR, Palau – Several Guantanamo detainees from western China are uninterested in moving to Palau, the country that agreed to resettle them after their upcoming release, because it is located too close to their homeland, the top Palauan presidential spokesman said Monday.
The Uighurs, from China's far western region of Xinjiang, are considered separatists by Chinese authorities. The U.S. refused to send them back to China because of concerns the men would be immediately arrested.
Palau consented to President Barack Obama's request to take the Turkic Muslims as part of plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, and the Pentagon determined last year that they were not "enemy combatants" — but the men have been stuck in legal limbo since.
Palau sent a fact-finding team to the Guantanamo Bay detention center last weekend to assess their needs. But five of the 13 Uighurs declined to meet with the delegation out of concerns that it could not protect them from the Chinese, said Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, special assistant to President Johnson Toribiong.
Palau is one of the word's smallest countries, located about 500 miles east of the Philippines.
The remaining eight Uighurs expressed similar reservations, but were open to the idea of resettling in Palau.
"They are concerned about security," Tmetuchl said. "They asked, 'How are you going to defend us from China?"'
Palau does not have diplomatic relations with China and instead has developed strong ties with Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. The U.S. is responsible for Palau's security.
Only one Uighur expressed high interest in Palau, Tmetuchl said. He was so excited that he ignored the call to prayer during his interview with Palauan officials and instead wanted to know more about the country.
"If we had said let's go, he would've jumped on the plane," he said. "It sounds like he just wanted out [of Guantanamo Bay]. And if out meant Palau, that's what he wanted."
Talks between the U.S., Palau and the Uighurs are ongoing, and it remains unclear when the detainees will be resettled.
The four-person delegation will brief Palauan leaders on their findings in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. The president had requested a public meeting, but Congressional leaders opted for a private session, Tmetuchl said.