U.S. soldier freed from captivity in Afghanistan, hometown makes welcome-home plans

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. U.S. officials say the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan, has been freed and is in U.S. custody. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. U.S. officials say the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan, has been freed and is in U.S. custody. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed by the Taliban 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 operations 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.

“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, where he was joined by Bergdahl’s parents. “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”

Bergdahl’s handover followed 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 who were held at Guantanamo.

Several dozen U.S. special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. Officials said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.

According to a senior defense official, 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.

Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.

Officials said Bergdahl was initially taken to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, and was being transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military facility in Germany, for additional care before he returns to the United States.

The official said Bergdhal was tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Center where he would be reunited with his family. The military was working Saturday to connect Bergdahl with his family over the telephone or by video conference.

The U.S. has long been seeking Bergdahl’s release, but there was renewed interest in his release as Obama finalized plans to pull nearly all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Officials said the Taliban signaled to the U.S. in November that they were ready to start new talks on the issue of detainees. After the U.S. received proof that Bergdahl was still alive, indirect talks began, with Qatar sending messages back and forth between the two parties.

The talks intensified about a week ago, officials said, resulting in Bergdahl’s release and the transfer of the Afghan detainees.

The five Guantanamo detainees departed the base on a U.S. military aircraft Saturday afternoon. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.

The news Saturday of Bergdahl’s release from captivity spread quickly in his hometown in southern Idaho, and residents immediately began making plans for a welcome-home celebration.

An annual event called “Bring Bowe Back” scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed “Bowe is Back.”

“It is going to be Bowe’s official welcome-home party even if he’s not quite home yet,” organizer Stefanie O’Neill said Saturday.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter issued a statement welcoming the news and expressing gratitude for prayers for Bergdahl’s release being answered.

“Today, Idaho gives thanks,” Otter said. “Soon we all will celebrate Bowe’s freedom and homecoming.”

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