The British government on Tuesday called on the US to return five UK residents held without charge at Guantanamo Bay in a sudden reversal of policy which follows years of refusing to help the men.
Government officials admitted the decision had come after relentless pressure from the men's families and lawyers and had been made on the eve of a court decision which ministers feared could see them ordered to allow one detainee back into Britain.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote to his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, on Tuesday asking for the return of men the US administration has accused of being terrorists. The five, who all have residency in Britain and strong family ties but are not citizens, are Jamil el-Banna, a Jordanian; Shaker Aamer, a Saudi; Omar Deghayes, a Libyan; Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian; and Abdennour Sameur, an Algerian. They all say they suffered torture or ill-treatment in up to five years of detention by the US.
US officials welcomed the move, saying Brown's request was a positive step in broader efforts to cut down on the number of inmates and eventually shut down Guantanamo.
The US has been working to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo with an eye toward closing the detention center.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the British request was already being reviewed and encouraged the UK and other nations to accept more detainees.
"This request is for five," he said. "If there is a desire for the UK government to look at more than five, of course we would entertain that, just as we would with any other country making a request."
Talks between the UK and the US about returning the men have been under way for at least 14 months, with the US initially demanding Britain accept back all UK residents in Guantanamo and place them under 24-hour surveillance.
The reasons for the British government's U-turn on Tuesday remained unclear. Officials said ministers and their advisers had come to realize that the government's position -- that the men were either still regarded as security risks or that their residency status had lapsed -- was untenable.
"The UK was calling for an end to Guantanamo Bay yet was not doing all it could do [to end it]," one official said.
What made the British position appear worse was the change in the US approach, with Washington suggesting that the men were no longer regarded as threats to US national security.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, Miliband and British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith warned that the release and return of the five men "may take some time."
"The government will of course continue to take all necessary measures to maintain national security," they said.
Families and supporters of the men expressed both delight and caution on Tuesday night.
"When I heard I was so happy, I was in tears. It's been a long, long terrible episode. Previous experience shows when the British government officially makes a request to the Americans they do manage to bring them back," Abubaker, Deghayes's brother, said.
But his sister, Amina, was more cautious, saying she would not be able to celebrate properly until her brother was back in the UK.
"I am getting mixed messages," she said. "Some people are telling me he is definitely coming back. Other people are saying they are going to request he come back and they may not be successful for a while."
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