US soldier freed from captivity in Afghanistan
By: JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special operations forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
FILE - This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Afghanistan's Taliban said in an emailed to the Associated Press Sunday Feb. 23, 2014 it has suspended "mediation" with the United States to exchange captive U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, halting _ at least temporarily _ what was considered the best chance yet of securing the 27-year-old's freedom since his capture in 2009. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)
FILE - This undated photo provided by the Bergdahl family and released by the Idaho National Guard shows then Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho. Afghanistan's Taliban says it has suspended "mediation" with the United States to exchange captive U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, halting â at least temporarily â what was considered the best chance yet of securing the 27-year-old's freedom since his capture in 2009. In a terse Pashto language statement emailed to the Associated Press on Sunday, Zabihullah Mujahed blamed the "current complex political situation in the country" for the suspension. (AP Photo/The Bergdahl Family, File)
This video frame grab from the Taliban propaganda video released Friday Dec. 25, 2009 purportedly shows U.S. soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum Idaho who was captured more than five months ago in eastern Afghanistan.It could not be confirmed immediately that it was Bergdahl in the new video, which was released to The Associated Press and other news organizations. The man identifies himself as Bergdahl, born in Sun Valley, Idaho, and gives his rank, birth date, blood type, his unit and mother's maiden name before beginning a lengthy verbal attack on the U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan and its relations with Muslims. (AP Photo/Militant Video)
This video frame grab taken from a Taliban propaganda video released Saturday, July 18, 2009, shows then-Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho, who went missing from his base in eastern Afghanistan. The nearly five-year effort to free the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan is scattered among numerous federal agencies with a loosely organized group of people working on it mostly part time, according to two members of Congress and military officials involved in the effort. An ever-shrinking U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has re-focused attention on efforts to bring home Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Militant Video)
Bob Bergdahl, left, and wife, Jani, the parents of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, talk at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration held to honor Sgt. Bergdahl in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. The father and mother of the only known U.S. prisoner of war plan to speak on Saturday afternoon to a big crowd in their central Idaho hometown just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Supporters listen to a speaker at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration held to honor captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. Hundreds of activists for missing service members gathered in a small Idaho town Saturday to hear the parents of the only known U.S. prisoner of war speak just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jani Bergdahl, left, joined by husband, Bob, the parents of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, speaks at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration held to honor Sgt. Bergdahl in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. Hundreds of activists for missing service members gathered in a small Idaho town Saturday to hear the parents of the only known U.S. prisoner of war speak just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Gulf War veteran Ron Coumerilh wears a sticker to support captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. Hundreds of activists for missing service members gathered in a small Idaho town Saturday to hear the parents of the only known U.S. prisoner of war speak just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A POW-MIA flag flies in front of a pharmacy displaying a sign in support of bringing home U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, in Hailey, Idaho, Friday, June 21, 2013. The Afghan war, and the taking of this POW, may have long faded from the minds of most Americans. But for this community in the shadow of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, Bowe Bergdahl and his family's fight to free him are "omnipresent," said local Wesley Deklotz. "It's a whole community of people that are keeping him in their thoughts." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
FILE - In this video frame grab taken from a Taliban propaganda video released Saturday, July 18, 2009 Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho is shown. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say they are still searching for 23-year-old Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, who disappeared June 30. (AP Photo/Militant Video)
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Bergdahl's recovery "is a reminder of America's unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield."
The handover followed indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees who were held at Guantanamo.
According to a senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the "SF?" - asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: "Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time."
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.
The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Bergdahl was transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations. A defense official said he would be sent to Germany for additional care before eventually returning to the United States.
The defense official said Bergdhal was tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Center where he would be reunited with his family. The military was working Saturday to connect Bergdahl with his family over the telephone or by video conference.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
The official added that the U.S. still believes that Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
All of the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl's transfer.
Officials said Obama spoke with Bergdahl's parents Saturday, shortly after their son had been taken into U.S. custody. Bergdahl's family was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received the news.
The parents of the freed soldier, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said in a statement that they were "joyful and relieved."
"We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," they said.
The U.S. has long been seeking Bergdahl's release, but efforts have intensified as Obama finalized plans to pull nearly all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
"It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Officials said the Taliban signaled to the U.S. in November that they were ready to start new talks on the issue of detainees. After the U.S. received proof that Bergdahl was still alive, indirect talks began, with Qatar sending messages back and forth between the two parties.
The talks intensified about a week ago, officials said, resulting in Bergdahl's release and the transfer of the Afghan detainees.
The five Guantanamo detainees departed the base on a U.S. military aircraft Saturday afternoon. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
Obama and the emir of Qatar spoke last week about the conditions of the release, which have been codified in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, officials said.
The administration is legally required to notify Congress in advance about plans to release Guantanamo detainees. An administration official said lawmakers were notified only after U.S. officials knew they had Bergdahl, but before the transfers took place.
The detainees are among the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are:
-Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence
-Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001
-Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden
-Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban's communications office in Kabul
-Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country.
Taliban and Afghan officials could not be reached for comment. In Pakistan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said her government was "not aware of" Bergdahl's release or the negotiations leading up to it. She declined to comment further.
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or desertion.
Baldor reported from Singapore. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Washington, Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.