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ARLINGTON, Va. — The United States has agreed to gradually begin releasing Afghanistan detainees held at Guantanamo, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan into the custody and control of Afghanistan’s new government, officials from the Defense and State departments said Thursday.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the Afghanistan government made the announcement in a joint news release.

The prisoner transfer agreement follows a May 2005 White House meeting between President Bush and Afghan President Karzai, in which Karzai asked for the return of Afghan detainees, the release said.

The release did not say how many detainees might be released, or when the transfer would take place.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there are about 110 Afghan nationals held at Guantanamo and 350 at the U.S. military detention facility at Bagram.

“This [transfer] will require some assistance on the part of the United States,” Whitman told Pentagon reporters Thursday.

“We intend to assist the government of Afghanistan in building the capacity to detain these individuals, including ensuring that the government of Afghanistan has the facilities and appropriately trained personnel to handle them.

“I can’t get into specifics and time lines,” Whitman said. “The transfers will not begin until these capacities are built.”

Whitman made his remarks following a telephone news conference with Army Brig. Gen. James Champion, deputy commanding general of Afghanistan’s Combined Joint Task Force 76.

Champion said that there are now 18,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan preparing to assist the 24,000-man Afghan National Army and 41,000-member police force provide security for the Sept. 18 national assembly elections.

“The enemy knows what is at stake” if elections are successful, Champion said. “We know we will have a tough fight” between now and the time the elections are completed.

Meanwhile, Champion said, the coalition has made little progress in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“We do not have any additional information [different] from 90 days ago as to the actual location of Osama bin Laden,” Champion said.

“To be quite honest with you, we have been concentrating and working on the folks that follow bin Laden’s philosophy [and where] his networks are located or trying to be established here in Afghanistan — that’s our primary focus.”


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