THE Taleban released a video yesterday showing the handover of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl to American forces after five years in captivity.
Sgt Bergdahl was freed on Saturday and exchanged for five Taleban detainees, who had been held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
They were flown to Qatar, the Gulf nation which has been acting as a mediator both in the prisoner exchange and attempts to broker Afghan peace talks.
The 17-minute video, shot in eastern Afghanistan, was e-mailed to media and shows the moment of Sgt Bergdahl’s handover. The Taleban is keen to publicise the exchange.
Sgt Bergdahl, 28, from Hailey, Idaho, was yesterday reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany.
The video shows Sgt Bergdahl in traditional Afghan clothing, clean-shaven and sitting in a white pickup parked on a hillside. More than a dozen Taleban fighters with machine guns, their faces mostly covered by headscarves, stand around the vehicle and on the hillside.
Sgt Bergdahl is seen blinking as he looks out of the vehicle and appears to be listening as one of his captors speaks to him. At one point, he wipes his left upper eyelid as if to get rid of a speck of dust.
A Black Hawk helicopter then lands and two Taleban, one carrying a white piece of cloth tied to a stick, lead Sgt Bergdahl half way to the helicopter, a few hundred metres away.
Sgt Bergdahl is then greeted and taken by three men in civilian clothes to the helicopter, where soldiers in army uniforms are waiting. Before he climbs in, one of the three men searches him, then soldiers help him board the Black Hawk.
According to the video voiceover, the handover took place around 4pm on Saturday near Bati in Ali Sher district, eastern Khost province. As the helicopter approaches, one of the Taleban men gets close to Sgt Bergdahl and is heard speaking in Pashto.
“Don’t come back to Afghanistan,” he tells Sgt Bergdahl. “You won’t make it out alive next time,” he adds as some of the others are heard laughing. The same words appear over the video in English, misspelled.
In a statement, Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar described the release of the five Taleban officials from Guantanamo as a significant achievement.
He also said the Taleban was seeking the release of more prisoners, but did not give details.
US defence department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said: “We know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sgt Bergdahl the care he needs.”
The release of the five Taleban was conditional on assurances from Qatar, where they will have to stay for one year, that they will be tracked and the US will be allowed to monitor them. The five were among the most senior Afghans still held at Guantanamo, the Bush-era detention centre President Barack Obama had pledged to close.
Even as Sgt Bergdahl’s hometown celebrates his release, the US army is contemplating an investigation that could lead to desertion or other charges against him. The Pentagon concluded in 2010 that Sgt Bergdahl walked away from his unit before he was captured by the Taleban. Members of his unit and army officials have complained his decision to leave his base unarmed put his fellow soldiers in danger and that some were killed in missions looking for him.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said charges were still a possibility and focused his thanks on the service members who searched fruitlessly for Sgt Bergdahl after he walked away, unarmed, on 30 June, 2009.
Gen Dempsey said he does not want to prejudice the outcome of any investigation or influence other commanders’ decisions, but he noted that US military leaders “have been accused of looking away from misconduct” and said no-one should assume they would do so in this case.
The Afghan foreign ministry criticised the swap, saying it was “against the norms of international law” if it came against the five imprisoned Taleban detainees’ will. It also criticised the restrictions put on the five Taleban officials’ freedom of movement in Qatar.