The US said on Friday it had flown five Chinese Muslim men who had been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison to resettle in Albania, declining to send them back to China because they might face persecution.
The State Department said Albania accepted the five ethnic Uighurs -- including two whose quest for freedom went all the way to the US Supreme Court -- for resettlement as refugees.
The Pentagon said 17 other Chinese Uighurs remained at the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because, unlike the five sent to Albania, they were still deemed "enemy combatants."
Ethnic Uighurs come from Xinjiang. Many Muslim Uighurs seek greater autonomy for the region and some want independence from China. Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls the violent separatist activities of the Uighurs.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Albania's resettlement of the men was an important humanitarian gesture, and expressed the US' appreciation for its cooperation.
The US Supreme Court declined last month to consider whether a judge could free two of the five men -- Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu Al-Hakim -- even though the US government had determined that they were not enemy combatants. A federal judge had found their detention unlawful.
Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights representing the two men, said their case was due to be heard again in court on Monday. Olshansky said the US government's decision to send them to Albania was made "to avoid having to answer in court for keeping innocent men in jail."
"We had no idea they were going to Albania. We didn't have any time to get anything on the ground to assist them with resettlement or to find out about whether they are trying to send them into some kind of detention," Olshansky said.
The two men were captured in Pakistan and have been detained since June 2002 at Guantanamo.
The US still holds about 480 detainees at Guantanamo, the Pentagon said, and has freed or handed over to their home governments a total of 272 detainees.