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June 28, 2017

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US soldier released by Taliban in prisoner swap

WASHINGTON - The lone US soldier held captive in Afghanistan was freed Saturday in exchange for five senior Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay, in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.

US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl -- who was captured nearly five years ago -- was in "good" condition after Taliban fighters handed him over to "a few dozen" US special operations forces backed up by helicopters at an undisclosed location in eastern Afghanistan, defense officials said.

The five Guantanamo Bay detainees were in turn transferred to Qatar, where restrictions were to be placed on their movements and activities, a US official said.

"Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays, and the simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted," President Barack Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by the soldier's parents Bob and Jani.

"But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten."

Obama thanked Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and the government in Kabul for helping to bring home the 28-year-old Bergdahl.

"The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security," Obama said, referring to the conditions under which the Taliban figures -- all seen as influential -- were transferred.

Bergdahl's release comes as the United States prepares to scale back its presence in Afghanistan, 13 years into America's longest war.

Previous attempts to free the army sergeant through a swap with the Taliban had failed. But this time, Qatar was able to secure an agreement.

An opportunity arose several weeks ago to resume talks on Bergdahl's release, a senior US administration official said earlier, "and we seized it."

Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province near the Pakistan border, with the Taliban later saying the militants had captured him.

At one time, he was believed to have been held by members of the Haqqani network, the militant outfit that is allied with the Taliban and has ties to Al-Qaeda.

'Joyful and relieved'

Bergdahl's parents said they were "joyful and relieved" to hear that their son was a free man.

"We will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers," Jani Bergdahl said at the White House.

Her husband Bob said a few words that appeared to be in the Pashto language of his son's captors before repeating them in English: "I'm your father, Bowe."

He indicated his son might have trouble speaking English after years in captivity and asked the media to grant the family space as they undertake the "considerable task" of Bergdahl's recovery.

Pentagon officials said Bergdahl was freed in the evening and brought to the Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he was receiving medical treatment.

From there, he will be taken to the US military medical facility at Landstuhl, Germany for further treatment and evaluation, before a reunion with his family in the United States.

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