The United States is preparing to release more than a dozen Guantanamo detainees as President Barack Obama works towards his long-promised goal of closing the controversial military prison, an US defense official said Wednesday.
The news comes the same day the Defense Department sent home one of two remaining detained Kuwaitis, bringing the total population at the jail on a US naval base in Cuba to 148.
Fawzi al-Odah, 37 -- who spent nearly 13 years in US detention -- took off in a Kuwaiti government plane at 5:30 am (1030 GMT), Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins told AFP.
He was headed to a rehabilitation center in his home country created for former Guantanamo detainees -- one which 10 Kuwaitis have already passed through.
Al-Odah's release leaves 79 Guantanamo inmates cleared for release -- never charged or tried for any crime and who have been approved by a special committee to be freed.
But efforts to send them home or to third party countries have languished as Obama has been thwarted by domestic and international obstacles.
Al-Odah was the first inmate freed since late May, when five Taliban Guantanamo detainnes were swapped for US Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a move that infuriated Republican lawmakers who protested they hadn't been informed in advance.
- Closing Guantanamo 'a priority' -
The Obama administration said Wednesday it plans to speed up the releases in the coming months.
"The Department of Defense hopes to transfer more than a dozen detainees to countries in South America and Europe, in the next two months, through the winter," a Pentagon official told AFP.
The official, who asked not to be named, said countries have agreed to take around 20 Guantanamo inmates, though the deals were not yet finalized.
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Six are supposed to be sent to Uruguay, but their transfer has been blocked for political reasons there.
Meanwhile, the rocky situation in Yemen, the home country of many of the remaining detainees who have been cleared, means the Obama administration must find alternative destinations.
"Closing Guantanamo is a priority for the defense department," Caggins told AFP.
"The Defense Department is working diligently to transfer the remaining detainees from Guantanamo," he said, adding that the Pentagon will "notify Congress prior to any transfer in accordance with statutory requirements."
Al-Odah was cleared by the Periodic Review Board at a hearing in July.
He had been arrested alongside fellow Kuwaiti Guantanamo detainee Fayez Al Kandari in northern Pakistan in late 2001, by tribesmen who sold them to the Pakistani army, who in turn handed them over to the United States.
The review board has recommended against releasing fellow Kuwaiti Al Kandari, ruling that he "almost certainly retains an extremist mindset and had close ties with high-level Al-Qaeda leaders in the past."
Caggins said Al Odah's "transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures," and in cooperation with the Kuwaiti government.
Recent media reports have suggested Obama was considering circumventing Congress, where he faces staunch opposition, to pave the way for shuttering the war-on-terror prison.
On Tuesday, he was dealt a major election defeat, with Republicans now in control of both congressional chambers for the first time since 2006.
"The president has always had the ability to close Guantanamo. A less friendly Congress may finally help him use that authority," argued Andrea Prasow, an expert at Human Rights Watch.
"With less than two years left in office, Obama knows that it's time for him to take real action if he intends to close the place."