PARIS – The first French prisoners to be released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, returned to France Tuesday as Paris continued negotiating for the release of three others, the French Foreign Ministry said.
The prisoners arrived at a military base in Normandy by chartered plane and were to be questioned by counterintelligence agents and appear before anti-terrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, French officials said on condition of anonymity.
Washington and Paris accelerated talks in recent weeks to allow some of the French detainees at Guantanamo to return home. The homecoming had been widely expected after similar handovers to other countries.
"It's the result of long efforts," President Jacques Chirac (search) told reporters during a visit to Madagascar. "We will naturally continue the discussions with American authorities to obtain the handover of the two or three other detainees."
The men were to be placed under investigation for criminal association with a terrorist enterprise, the officials said.
After months of international criticism for holding hundreds of suspects at Guantanamo Bay without charge, the United States has been gradually releasing some prisoners from its naval base in Cuba.
"The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether he is believed to pose a threat to the United States if released," the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday.
The four handed over were Mourad Benchellali, Imad Kanouni, Nizar Sassi and Brahim Yadel, judicial officials said. They were remanded to French custody.
Under French anti-terror laws, they can be held for questioning for 96 hours.
Three other French detainees remain at Guantanamo — Ridouane Khalid, Khaled Ben Mustafa and Mustaq Ali Patel, who has both French and Indian citizenship, the officials said.
Defense lawyer Jacques Debray, expressed "great satisfaction" that his two clients were among the four returning to France. He represents Benchellali, 24 and Sassi, 22, who hail from a working class suburb of the southeastern city of Lyon.
Lawyers for other detainees could not be immediately reached for comment.
France has long sought the extradition of the suspects, some of whom are wanted in terrorism investigations led by Bruguiere.
Yadel was wanted in an investigation into a training camp by Islamic militants set up in the late 1990s in the Fontainebleau forest south of Paris. Some of those at the camps are believed to have traveled to Afghanistan and the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.
Benchellali is the son of Chellali Benchellali, an imam from the Lyon suburb of Venissieux who was arrested regarding a suspected terrorist network that authorities say was planning attacks on Russian interests in France.
The Guantanamo Bay camp holds about 600 inmates. Many are believed to be foot soldiers from the Al Qaeda (search) terror network and the Taliban (search) regime that once ruled Afghanistan, while some may be victims of circumstance.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (search) and other human rights groups have expressed reservations about the U.S. military's practice of holding the prisoners at Guantanamo without charges.
The Pentagon has held most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay without charges for more than two years on grounds that they are "enemy combatants" with no right to contest their detention in U.S. courts.
The Pentagon set up "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" for Guantanamo detainees after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 28 that they have a right to bring challenges before U.S. civilian courts.
With the release of the French, 129 Guantanamo prisoners have been freed and 22 have been transfered to the control of other governments, the Pentagon said. Seven have been returned to Russia, four to Saudia Arabia, one to Spain, one to Swedem and five to Britain.