By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three Yemenis and two Tunisians held for more than a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo have been flown to Kazakhstan for resettlement, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of prisoner transfers aimed at closing the facility.
The transfer of the five men followed a recent pledge by President Barack Obama for a stepped-up push to shut the internationally condemned detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba where most prisoners have been held without being charged or tried.
The U.S. government has moved 28 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year – the largest number since 2009 – and a senior U.S. official said the pace would continue with further transfers expected in coming weeks.
Kazakhstan’s acceptance of the five followed extensive negotiations with the Obama administration, the official said. Though the oil-rich central Asian state is an ally of Russia, it has cultivated areas of economic and diplomatic cooperation with the West.
The men sent to Kazakhstan, a majority-Muslim country, were identified as "low-level" detainees who were cleared long ago for transfer. With their removal from Guantanamo just before the new year, the detainee population has been whittled down to 127.
More than half of the remaining Guantanamo detainees are from Yemen, and though most have been approved for transfer, Washington is unable to send them home because of the chaotic security situation there.
Obama continues to face other obstacles posed by the U.S. Congress to the goal of emptying the prison before he leaves office, not least of which is a ban on the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland.
All five men were originally detained on suspicion of links to al Qaeda or allied militant groups.
The Pentagon identified the Yemenis as Asim Thabit Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna and Sabri Muhammad Ibrahim Al Qurashi. The Tunisians were named as Adel Al-Hakeemy and Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Lufti.
Other countries that have accepted Guantanamo detainees for resettlement this year include Uruguay, Georgia and Slovakia. The largest number – four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian – were sent to Uruguay earlier this month.
The prison was opened by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to house militant suspects rounded up overseas.
"I’m going to be doing everything I can to close it,” Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast on Dec. 21.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Nick Macfie)