Life of Soldier Held by Taliban Was in Danger, US Defence Chief Says

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released Saturday from captivity in Afghanistan after being held for five years, US President Barack Obama announced. He was released in exchange for five Afghan prisoners held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who were to be handed over to Qatar. EPA/US ARMY HANDOUT

By Hafiz Ahmadi and Marco Mierke (DPA)

KABUL — US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday defended the prisoner exchange with the Taliban that led to the release of a US soldier held captive five years, saying Bowe Bergdahl's life was in danger.

Top Republican leaders in the US Congress criticized the release of five high-level Afghan prisoners in exchange for the 28-year-old American and accused US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, of breaking the law that requires Congress to be notified of prisoners freed from the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The United States had received intelligence that "Sergeant Bergdahl's safety and health were both in jeopardy and in particular his health deteriorating," Hagel said during a flight to an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.

"It was our judgement that if we could find an opening and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there essentially to save his life," Hagel said.

Only a handful of people knew about the operation before it went ahead and Afghan President Hamid Karzai was notified after the fact, Hagel said.

Bergdahl, who had been the last remaining US prisoner of war in Afghanistan, arrived Sunday at the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, a US military spokesman there said.

He is to receive physical and psychological examinations, the spokesman said while refusing to comment about his condition.

Upon Hagel's arrival in Afghanistan, the top civilian official at the Pentagon met with the special operation soldiers who participated in the Taliban handover of Bergdahl Saturday in Khost province near the border with Pakistan.

US law requires the government to notify Congress 30 days before the release of Guantanamo detainees. Hagel said, however, that the US constitution allows the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the US military, to take such unauthorized actions.

The Taliban confirmed Sunday that they had released Bergdahl in exchange for five of their cadre held in Guantanamo.

The releases were made after indirect talks mediated by Qatar, a Taliban statement said, adding that the released Taliban would stay in Qatar with their families.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, said Bergdahl was handed over to a US delegation Saturday evening.

"The mujahideen took him to an area in Alisher district, where they had taken security," Mujahid said. "Then the enemy's helicopters landed and took him over."

He said Bergdahl received an Afghan turban as a gift while he was released.

Bergdahl was captured in June 2009. The five Aghans involved in the release, who included the Taliban's former deputy defence minister, had been held at Guantanamo since 2002.

Under the terms of the prisoner exchange, they are to remain under close observation in Qatar for a year.

Hagel is making his third visit to Afghanistan as defence secretary. He is reportedly using it to talk to US commanders about the progress made by Afghan security forces in taking over security of their country ahead of the pullout of foreign combat troops.

The US is ending its combat mission in Afghanistan by December, leaving 9,800 troops in the country until the end of 2016 if the new government signs a long-delayed security pact with Washington.