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May 1, 2017

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Palau asks for more U.S. aid after Gitmo prisoners deal

KOROR, Palau -- The tiny island nation of Palau is asking its longtime benefactor, the United States, for a 35-year extension to direct aid funding — and hinting Washington should say yes because of its offer to take in 13 Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Both Palauan and U.S. officials deny any direct link between the country's willingness to take in the Chinese Muslim Uighurs and American largess. But Palau negotiators say they are proposing the three-decade extension in a formal 15-year review of the Compact of Free Association between the two countries that underpins the island state's economy. The latest round of talks are due to open Wednesday in Hawaii, with a final round due in Palau in September.

"Palau needs a little leniency from strict implementation of the terms of the compact," Palau President Johnson Toribiong told The Associated Press this week.

Toribiong did not specifically mention the Uighurs. But the head of Palau's negotiating team, Joshua Koshiba, said the offer to take the Chinese detainees was "a positive for the negotiation" on the compact.

"I can point my finger at them now and say, 'See, we are helping you too, without asking for help only,'" Koshiba told AP.

If the U.S. doesn't agree to Palau's new terms, Koshiba said, his country will weigh its options.

"When you have a friend, if they don't want to be your friend anymore, what do you do? Don't you look for another friend?" Koshiba said. Mark Bezner, the top U.S. official in Palau who will also take part in the talks, called the extension request "a radical departure" from previous discussions but said Washington would consider any proposal made by the Palauans.

The Uighurs, Turkic Muslims from China's far west, have been held by the United States since their capture in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year that they were not "enemy combatants," but they have been stuck in legal limbo ever since.

China considers them separatists and has demanded their return for trial. U.S. officials fear the men could be executed if they go back to China. The situation has become even more sensitive since ethnic tensions soared this week between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese in the Muslim home territory of Xinjiang.

Palau last month agreed to take Uighur detainees as part of plans to close Guantanamo Bay as part of President Barack Obama's plans to close the center.

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