A pause in prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay has ended with the arrival Saturday in Oman of six Yemenis long held at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists.
It was the first movement of detainees out of Guantanamo in five months as Congress considers new restrictions on transfers.
The six men boarded a flight Friday from the U.S. facility in Cuba, and their transfer reduced Guantanamo's population to 116. President Barack Obama has now transferred more than half the 242 detainees who were at Guantanamo when he was sworn into office in 2009 after campaigning to close it.
But he is far from achieving that goal. With just a year and a half left in his second term, final transfer approvals are coming slowly from the Pentagon and lawmakers are threatening to make movement out even harder.
The transfers to Oman are the first to win final approval by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has been on the job four months.
The six include Emad Abdullah Hassan, who has been on hunger strikes since 2007 in protest of his confinement without charge since 2002.
In court filings protesting force-feeding practices, Hassan said detainees have been force-fed up to a gallon at a time of nutrients and water. The U.S. accuses him of being one of many bodyguards to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and of being part of a group planning to attack NATO and American troops after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The five other detainees sent to Oman were identified by the Pentagon as:
—Idris Ahmad 'Abd Al Qadir Idris and Jalal Salam Awad Awad, also both alleged bodyguards to bin Laden.
—Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad Mas'ud, whom the U.S. said fought American soldiers at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, before his capture in Pakistan.
—Saa'd Nasser Moqbil Al Azani, a religious teacher whom the U.S. believes had ties to bin Laden's religious adviser; and
—Muhammad Ali Salem Al Zarnuki, who allegedly arrived in Afghanistan as early as 1998 to fight and support the Taliban.
"The United States is grateful to the government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Defense Department said in a statement announcing the transfer. "The United States coordinated with the government of Oman to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
The state-run Oman News Agency reported early Saturday that the men arrived in the sultanate and would be living there "temporarily." Sultan Qaboos bin Said approved the men being in the country to aid the U.S. government while also taking into account the men's "humanitarian circumstances," the agency reported.
Oman's decision to accept the men comes as it has played an increasingly important role in mediations between the U.S. and Iran as world powers try to strike a nuclear deal over the Islamic Republic's contested atomic program.
The 11 detainees transferred so far in 2015 have all been from Yemen. Forty-three of the 51 remaining detainees who have been approved for transfer are from Yemen.
The Obama administration won't send them home due to instability in Yemen, which has seen Shiite rebels known as Houthis take the capital, Sanaa, and other areas despite a campaign of Saudi-led airstrikes targeting them. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the network's Yemeni branch that the U.S. considers to be the most dangerous affiliate, also remains active.
"We are working feverishly to transfer each of the 51 detainees currently approved for transfer," said Ian Moss, who works on detainee transfers at the State Department. "It is not in our national security interest to continue to detain individuals if we as a government have determined that they can be transferred from Guantanamo responsibly."
Some lawmakers want to impose stiffer requirements for transferring Guantanamo detainees to other countries. Obama has threatened to veto a House bill in part because of the Guantanamo restrictions.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that Oman shares a border with Yemen and she said the administration had failed to provide sufficient assurances that the six would not return to the battlefield.
"If they are not securely detained, no one should be surprised if they travel to Yemen and re-engage in terrorist activities," Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement.
An administration official said Oman agreed to accept the six Yemeni detainees about a year ago. But the defense secretary must give final approval to the move, and that has been a slow process at the Pentagon.
The U.S. administration official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to go on the record, said the Pentagon has sent no further transfer notification to Congress, which is required 30 days before detainees can be moved.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.