Afghan Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has issued a rare public statement hailing the exchange of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for a Taleban-held US soldier as a “big victory”.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed to US forces in Afghanistan on Saturday.
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel has defended the exchange amid criticism Congress was not given 30 days’ notice before the detainees were released.
He said the US had to act quickly to save the soldier’s life.
Sgt Bergdahl, who is said to be in good condition and has been flown to Germany for more treatment, was the only US soldier being held by the Taleban in Afghanistan.
“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation,” said Mullah Omar, who has made no public appearances or speeches since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001 when US-led forces toppled the Taleban after the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The five Afghan detainees are thought to be the most senior Afghans held at the US detention facility in Cuba, having been captured during America’s military campaign in 2001.
US national security adviser Susan Rice said there had been extensive consultations with Congress in the past about getting Sgt Bergdahl back, and lawmakers knew about the idea of trading detainees. The five released inmates had all been held at Guantanamo since 2002.
Mohammad Fazl served as the Taleban’s deputy defence minister during America’s military campaign in 2001 and has been accused of possible war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Shia Muslims.
Khirullah Khairkhwa was a senior Taleban official serving as interior minister and governor of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, and was alleged to have had direct links to Osama Bin Laden.
Abdul Haq Wasiq was the Taleban’s deputy minister of intelligence and said to have been central in forming alliances with other Islamist groups to fight against US and coalition forces.
Mullah Norullah Noori was a senior Taleban military commander and a governor, also accused of being involved in the mass killings of Shia Muslims.
Mohammad Nabi Omari held multiple Taleban leadership roles, including chief of security. He was alleged to have been involved in attacks against US and coalition forces.
While hopeful the prisoner exchange could lead to a breakthrough in negotiations with the Taleban, Mr Hagel said getting Sgt Bergdahl back had been the priority. Afghan president Hamid Karzai was informed of the prisoner-swap “after the fact”, he added.
Sgt Bergdahl’s parents Bob and Jani had been in Washington on a previously planned visit when President Barack Obama called on Saturday with news of their son’s release. President Obama said that he received security guarantees from Qatar – which mediated the deal and where the five Afghan men have been flown – “that it will put in place measures to protect our national security”.
As they stood with Mr Obama in the White House yesterday, Mr Bergdahl said his son was having trouble speaking English after his rescue. Mr Bergdahl, who grew a long, thick beard to honour his son, had worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son’s captors, and delivered a message to him and the people of Afghanistan in that language.
Switching back to English, he said “the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended”.
In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted e-mails Sgt Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America’s mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in the army and was considering desertion. He told his parents he was “ashamed to even be American”.