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U.S. condemns Afghan decision to go ahead with detainee release

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference in Kabul January 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a news conference in Kabul January 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday condemned a decision by the Afghan government to proceed with plans to release additional detainees that the United States believes pose a militant threat.

The detainees have become one more issue fueling tension in U.S.-Afghan ties, as foreign troops, who have been in Afghanistan since 2001, steadily withdraw. The U.S. director of national intelligence said on Tuesday he did not expect President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington.

"United States Forces-Afghanistan has learned that 65 dangerous individuals from a group of 88 detainees under dispute have been ordered released from the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan," the U.S. military force said in a statement.

"The release of these detainees is a major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan," it said. "Some previously-released individuals have already returned to the fight, and this subsequent release will allow dangerous insurgents back into Afghan cities and villages."

An Afghan government official said the prisoners could be released in a few days. The Pentagon believes it will happen on Thursday, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters in Washington.

President Barack Obama's administration has been pressing Karzai to sign a bilateral security pact that would allow some U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond a deadline at the end of this year. But there has been little sign of him complying.

The detainees in question are among 650 held at Bagram prison north of Kabul, whom Afghan authorities have marked for release on grounds of insufficient proof to prosecute them. Washington objects to freeing a total of 88 prisoners it regards as a threat to security.

Last month, U.S. officials objected to Afghanistan after the government directed the Afghan Review Board, a government body, to release 37 of the 88 detainees.

Tuesday's development appears to put those prisoners, and 28 others, closer to release.

"The attorney general ordered Bagram prison authorities (to) release 65 prisoners because they was no incriminating evidence against them," said Basir Azizi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's attorney general.

The Pentagon's Warren said in reply to reporters' questions that "it is the U.S. position that these (detainees) are threats to U.S. forces, and should they take up arms against us, we will take immediate action."

"Of course we would try to kill or capture them, as the battlefield situation presents."

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Missy Ryan; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Cooney)

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