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6 Guantanamo prisoners in Uruguay welcome to get job, bring family, says defense minister

Three doctors enter the military hospital in Montevideo, Uruguay, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.

Three doctors enter the military hospital in Montevideo, Uruguay, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.  (ap)

The six Guantanamo Bay prisoners sent by the United States to Uruguay to be resettled as refugees were undergoing psychological examinations at a Montevideo military hospital Monday and are expected to be released the next day.

Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro told Rural Radio on Monday that the examination is the only reason the former prisoners are not already "in the streets of Montevideo, walking like anybody else."

Huidobro also said that the six men, who arrived early Sunday, are doing well.

He said the government will help them find work, an that they will be fully welcomed into Uruguayan society. As with other immigrants, he said, he expects them to find "a job, work to put bread on the table, bring the family, live in peace and sit in the stands of a stadium, becoming a fan of some soccer team."

One of the former inmates wrote a letter to the Montevideo newspaper, El País, thanking the country for taking them in.

"My name is Omar Faraj Abdelhadi. For the past 12 years I have also been known as prisoner number 329 at Guantanamo. And I'm one of the newly arrived to Uruguay as a refugee from that horrible prison."

The letter continued, "I'm sure many Uruguayans are curious about me and the other men, so I want to send this letter directly to the people of Uruguay, in the spirit of openness and friendship they have shown us."

The Syrian described himself as an innocent man from a modest background who had worked as a mechanic and butcher before being captured and turned over to U.S. forces in Pakistan and then sent to Guantanamo as a suspected terrorist.

"Were it not for Uruguay, I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today," said the letter released by his attorney, Ramzi Kassem, in New York. "It is difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us."

He said he looked forward to following the national soccer team, nicknamed the Celestes, in the next Copa América, the South American regional soccer tournament being held next summer.

The six men — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaida in 2002 but were never charged. They had been cleared for release since 2009 but could not be sent to their home countries, and the U.S. struggled to find others willing to take them.

Fernández Huidobro denied that the six had any relationship to terrorism, noting the U.S. had cleared them.

Uruguayan President José Mujica agreed to accept the men as a humanitarian gesture and said they would be given help getting established in a country of 3.3 million with a total Muslim population of perhaps 300.

Recent polls showed most Uruguayans opposed asylum for the ex-prisoners, and the reaction has been muted. Sen. Ope Pasquet of the opposition Colorado Party said on Twitter that he agreed with the asylum for humanitarian reasons but added  that congress should have been consulted.

Uruguay already has taken in 42 Syrian civil war refugees, who arrived in October, and has said it will take about 80 more.

They are coming to what may be the only country in the Americas without a mosque, said Tamar Chaky, director of the Islamic Cultural Organization of Uruguay. He promised that the local Muslim community would welcome them, but said the organization had not been contacted by the government.

The U.S. has now transferred 19 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year; 136 remain, the lowest number since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002.

The U.S. now holds 67 men at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release or transfer but, like the six sent to Uruguay, can't go home because they might face persecution, a lack of security or another reason.

This weekend's transfer was the largest group sent to a country in the Western Hemisphere. Four Guantanamo prisoners were sent to Bermuda in 2009 and two were sent to El Salvador in 2012 but have since left.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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