KABUL: Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar on Sunday hailed the release of five senior insurgents in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl as a “big victory”.
“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahideen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory regarding the release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison,” he said in a rare statement.
“I thank the government of Qatar, especially its emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad (Al Thani), who made sincere efforts for release of these leaders and for their mediation and for hosting them,” he added.
Mullah Omar was Afghanistan's de facto head of state during their 1996-2001 rule over Afghanistan. He has continued to lead the group's insurgency since they were ousted from power.
His current whereabouts are unconfirmed.
The five transferred Taliban detainees have been named by the US State Department as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.
A Taliban source in Quetta told news agency AFP that the five had been officials in the Taliban regime driven out by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and that they remained influential.
Impact on peace talks?
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday expressed hope that the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl would lead to direct US talks with the Taliban. In an interview with NBC's “Meet the Press,” Hagel noted that the United States had engaged in talks with the Taliban before, until they were broken off in 2012.
“So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement,” he said.
The men's release had long been the main condition imposed by the Taliban to launch peace negotiations with the United States.
Contacts between the two sides were broken off several times by the Taliban after Washington refused to release the prisoners, with the rebels saying the US refusal meant the United States was not serious about negotiations.
But secret talks nevertheless took place during the past year that led to the exchange, a Taliban official told AFP.
The official was careful, however, to avoid any speculation that those contacts could soon lead to peace negotiations.
A total of 149 detainees now remain at Guantanamo Bay prison. Among them, there are 12 Afghans, including four currently approved for transfer.
Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province, with the Taliban later saying they had captured him.
The Idaho native was the only American soldier held captive by the militants in the nearly 13-year war.
“Today, the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years,” US President Barack Obama said in announcing his release.
Obama's announcement came as Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said he had informed the US Congress of the decision to transfer five Guantanamo detainees to Qatar.
“The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised,” Hagel said.