Uighur Gitmo Detainees Balk at Move to Palau

Some Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay who have been offered resettlement in Palau are leery of moving to the tiny Pacific island nation for fear that it cannot protect them from China, Palau's president said Tuesday.

Palau sent a fact-finding team to the Guantanamo Bay detention center earlier this month to assess the needs of the 13 Uighurs, Turkic Muslims from the far west of China -- where they are wanted as alleged terrorists.

President Johnson Toribiong said the men were concerned about the island nation's size and ability to provide for their safety.

"Some said (Palau) is too small," he said. "And when they showed pictures of Palau, there was a photo showing some Chinese signs. And that led them to ask, 'Do you have an army? Do you have a navy?' because they are concerned about their safety from the Chinese."

Some shops and infrastructure projects bear Chinese signs because Palau has a significant Taiwanese presence.

The Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), from Xinjiang region, are considered separatists by Chinese authorities who have demanded they be sent home for trial. However, U.S. officials have said they fear the men would be executed if they returned to China.

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 consented earlier this month to President Barack Obama's request to take the Uighurs as part of plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

Palau is one of the word's smallest countries. It does not have diplomatic relations with China and instead has developed strong ties with Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. The United States is responsible for Palau's security.

Lawmaker Marhence Madrangchar said he was a bit surprised at the detainees' reactions.

"They've been in Guantanamo for many years," he said. "I thought they'd like to get away and maybe come to Palau."

He suggested the men would maybe prefer to live in a larger country where they could access the media and bring attention to their cause.

"Being in Palau is being isolated," Madrangchar conceded.

It remains unclear when, if ever, the Uighurs might arrive. Toribiong has said Palau has already accepted the men and now awaits confirmation from the United States.

The fact-finding team is now drafting a written resettlement proposal and its responses to the detainees' questions, the government said. The documents will be sent to U.S. officials and to the detainees or their attorneys.

Stevenson Kuartei, a Palauan physician who evaluated the detainees' medical condition in Guantanamo, said detention appears to have taken a mental toll.

The deeply religious men, who would be unable to travel abroad while in Palau, also told the delegation that they would still feel confined if they were unable to undertake the Hajj; Under Islam, all able-bodied Muslims are obligated to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lives.

"There's something that's making them feel like they are in detention regardless of the fence," Kuartei said. "In coming to Palau, they still feel like it would be detention."