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US soldier freed from captivity in Afghanistan: gov't

WASHINGTON/KABUL/BAGRAM AIR BASE -- 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.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban on Saturday evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. In a statement, the Taliban said Bergdahl was handed over on the outskirts of Khost province.

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,” U.S. 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.”

The 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 that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.

According to a senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the letters “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 and cried.

Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. The network 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 transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations. A defense official said he would be sent to Germany for additional care before eventually returning to the United States.

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. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.

The official added that the U.S. still believes that Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.

All the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl's transfer.

Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, had been in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received a call Saturday from Obama informing them that their son had been freed.

As they stood with Obama hours after their son's release, Bob Bergdahl, who grew a long, thick beard to honor his son, said Bowe Bergdahl was having trouble speaking English after his rescue. The elder Bergdahl had worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son's captors, and delivered him a message in that language.

Switching back to English, he said “the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended.”

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Accompanied by U.S. President Barack Obama, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Saturday, May 31. (AP /AFP)

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