WASHINGTON -- The lone U.S. prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to U.S. forces in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.
The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to U.S. Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border Saturday evening local time in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, U.S. officials said. Moments later, Sgt. Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, U.S. officials said. He was found in good condition and able to walk.
The five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Muslim Shiites in Afghanistan, were being transferred to the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state, where they will be subject to security restrictions, including a one-year travel ban.
All five Taliban members being released are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantanamo and would otherwise be among the last to leave. Senior administration officials cautioned that the discussions over the prisoner swap, which were secretly restarted last fall after collapsing several months earlier, did not necessarily presage the resumption of the broader, on-again-off-again peace talks to end the 13-year war.
"This is the only issue we've discussed with the Taliban in recent months," said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. "We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don't have any promises to that effect."
A Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Sgt. Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. U.S. officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.
President Barack Obama personally telephoned the soldier's parents Saturday, shortly after Sgt. Bergdahl was transferred to the U.S. military; the Bergdahl family was in Washington after a visit for Memorial Day, officials said.
"Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery is a reminder of America's unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield," Mr. Obama said in a statement.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of Bowe Bergdahl who have waged a tireless campaign for their son's release, have sometimes criticized the Obama administration's lack of action. But in statement from the family released Saturday, they praised the U.S. and Qatari governments for their help.
"We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," they said. "Today, we are ecstatic!"
The news of Sgt. 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."
In Hailey, Idaho, a town of 7,000 residents just down the road from upscale Sun Valley, residents have hung yellow ribbons along the one major road that travels through the heart of the community. Signs were taped up Saturday that said, "Bowe is free at last!"
Sgt. Bergdahl was believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan's northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
The circumstances of how he was separated from his unit and captured have remained a mystery.
Negotiations and internal deliberations over the potential for a swap of detainees at Guantanamo for Sgt. Bergdahl have waxed and waned for years, but they intensified in the past several weeks as an agreement appeared within reach, according to an official familiar with the matter.
Among other complications, there was a potential legal obstacle: Congress has imposed statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The statutes say Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must determine that a transfer is in the national security interest, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and that he must notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of his determination.
In this case, the administration did not notify Congress ahead of time, officials said. They noted that Mr. Obama has claimed that the transfer restrictions are a potentially unconstitutional intrusion on his powers as the commander-in-chief. Last December, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them. An administration official said the circumstances of a fast-moving prisoner exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers.
The top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Rep. Howard McKeon of California and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the release of the Taliban prisoners "clearly violated laws" governing the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
The transfer reduces the detainee population at Guantanamo to 149. They include 12 Afghan nationals -- each of whom were deemed far less important and dangerous than the five who were included in the swap.
Hopes for Sgt. Bergdahl's release were lifted once again last November when the Taliban signaled it was prepared to engage the United States on the limited issue of a prisoner swap, but not on wider issues including reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan, a senior administration official said Saturday.
The discussions resumed with the Qatari government acting as an intermediary for messages between the two sides, the official said.
In the past week, detailed negotiations culminated in an agreement for a Taliban delegation to bring Sgt. Bergdahl across the border to Afghanistan, where he would be retrieved by U.S. Special Operations troops.
Mr. Obama called the emir of Qatar on Tuesday, and they gave each other assurances about the proposed transfers, an administration official said Saturday.
Sgt. Bergdahl was handed over about 7 p.m. local time without incident with the Special Operations troops spending only a few minutes on the ground, said U.S. officials, who did not disclose the swap's location inside Afghanistan.
Associated Press contributed.