The only American solider held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed from Taliban captivity 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 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.
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 secret and 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 that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, had been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He is thought to have been captured by members of the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.
The Haqqani 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 expected to be transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, then on to the United States.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces 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
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.
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.
The five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo were still at the base as of Saturday morning, but were being transferred into the custody of Qatari officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
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.
All the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl's transfer.
Baldor reported from Singapore.
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Statement by the President on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl
Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years. On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal. Today we also remember the many troops held captive and whom remain missing or unaccounted for in America’s past wars. Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield. And as we find relief in Bowe’s recovery, our thoughts and prayers are with those other Americans whose release we continue to pursue.
For his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return, I extend my deepest appreciation to the Amir of Qatar. The Amir’s personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries. The United States is also grateful for the support of the Government of Afghanistan throughout our efforts to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release.
This week the United States renewed its commitment to the Afghan people and made clear that we will continue to support them as they chart their own future. The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan. While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.