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This undated image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. / AP

After nearly five years in captivity, the last servicemember unaccounted for from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been freed in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees who will be transferred to Qatar, which helped facilitate the deal.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement Saturday. The resident of Hailey, Idaho, was serving in a parachute infantry regiment of the Army's 25th Infantry Division when he was captured in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.

"While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten," President Obama said during brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday evening with Bergdahl's parents.

Bergdahl's mother, Jani, said "we will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers."

Bob Bergdahl, the sergeant's father, said he is not sure whether his son can still speak English, and he made some of his remarks in what appeared to be the Pashtun language. "I'm your father, Bowe," the elder Bergdahl said at one point.

The handover was the result of indirect talks between the United States and the Taliban's political leadership, with Qatar acting as a mediator, according to a senior administration official who provided information to reporters on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

U.S. efforts to obtain Bergdahl's release began in November 2010, but a break in the effort occurred several weeks ago, when an opportunity rose to resume talks, the official said. Bergdahl's release and the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Qatar is part of a broader reconciliation effort in Afghanistan, the official said.

U.S. officials hope the transfer will build greater trust between the Taliban and the Afghan government so the two sides can negotiate a solution, the official said.

Obama defended the exchange, saying the government of Qatar pledged to "put in place measures to protect our national security."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed reservations about that part of the deal.

The Guantanamo detainees "are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands," McCain said. "I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners."

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA member, said the Qatar-brokered talks likely started as a broader reconciliation process, but after the Taliban said they were only interested in a straight prisoner swap, the discussions became limited.

"(The swap is) the only way we could have brought him home," Riedel said Saturday.

A Defense Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with department requirements, said the five former detainees were mostly mid- to high-level officials in the Taliban regime who were detained in the early part of the war in 2001 because of their positions within the organization, not because of ties to al-Qaeda. The five detainees are Khairullah Khairkhwa, Noorullah Noori, Fazl Muhammad, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Muhammad Nabi Omari.

Of hundreds of terrorism suspects released from the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 30% - about 170 - have been confirmed by intelligence officials or media reports as having turned to terrorist activities after their release, according to research by Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Bergdahl's release comes as the United States plans to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, ending a war that began after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the goal of ousting al-Qaeda and the Taliban Afghan regime that gave it refuge. The U.S. hopes to establish a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which continues to fight an insurgency against U.S. and Afghan government troops.

"While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground," Obama said in a White House statement released earlier Saturday.

Bergdahl is currently at a medical clinic at the U.S. base at Bagram, Afghanistan, but will be traveling to Landstuhl Air Base in Germany before heading to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.

News of Bergdahl's release spread quickly in his hometown, where residents began planning a welcome home celebration, the Associated Press reported. An annual event called "Bring Bowe Back" scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed "Bowe Is Back."

Contributing: Jim Michaels



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl freed in Afghanistan

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