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Airliner plot complicates planned Gitmo closure

By Carol Rosenberg

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 30 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

MIAMI — The foiled Christmas Day plot to blow up a jetliner over Detroit has thrown up a major roadblock to President Barack Obama's pledge to close the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay.

Cascading reports that the alleged would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had trained in Yemen, and that the plot was hatched by two former Guantanamo detainees, have even supporters of emptying the prison predicting a new impediment to their effort.

Nearly half of the 198 captives at Guantanamo are citizens of Yemen — also the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden — just south of Saudi Arabia.

"This is just disastrous for the Yemenis at Guantanamo," said Washington, D.C., attorney David Remes, who over the years has defended 17 Yemeni detainees, some now slated for release.

Remes said an Obama administration task force has cleared for release "as many as 40 Yemenis" declared unfairly held or no longer threats, but that "the politics of the situation may make it impossible for the administration to send any Yemenis back to Yemen in the foreseeable future."

Yemen also was a thorny issue for the Bush administration, which tried but failed to establish a safe tracking and rehabilitation system for Guantanamo detainees returned there.

The White House tested the water earlier this month by sending six Yemenis home, the largest transfer to the nation since Guantanamo opened eight years ago.

Now, the Christmas Day bomb attempt has renewed calls to maintain Guantanamo as a detention center, even as the White House is trying to win congressional approval to purchase an unused state prison in northern Illinois to hold detainees facing trial by military commission and some whom cannot be released.

"I know the president made a promise that he'd close Guantanamo because of what it represented in world opinion," U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, told "Fox News Sunday."

"But today it's a first-class facility," he said of the remote prison that holds captives from 28 nations in seven different camps. "It would be a mistake to send these 90 people back to Yemen, because based on the past of what's happened when we've released people from Guantanamo, a certain number of them have gone back into the fight against us."

Indeed, the Bush administration freed or sent home nearly 500 detainees, among them two Saudi Arabian men that ABC News said were behind Abdulmutallab's ill-fated effort to blow up the airliner with explosives hidden in his underpants.

In contrast, the Obama administration to date has transferred only 44 detainees from Guantanamo.

Of those, three face criminal trials in Italy and New York. A fourth was taken for burial in Yemen, a suspected suicide after he was discovered dead of undisclosed causes in the prison psychiatric ward.

One of Obama's first acts as president was to order the detention center closed, saying it had served as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida around the world.

The White House has acknowledged in recent months that it won't meet the president's Jan. 22 deadline for closure. But on Tuesday, it was sticking to the blueprint it developed in the intervening year of releasing some captives, moving others to trial and holding yet others in a state of indefinite detention approved by the courts through habeas corpus challenges.

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