Times Online - Under the palm trees of Palau two items of news have got the islanders talking.
One is about the latest battle raging in the Philippine jungle between government forces and al-Qaeda linked militants.
The other is about the islanders’ soon-to-be neighbours – the Guantánamo Bay inmates who are to be settled in their midst.
The two news stories are inextricably linked in the minds of the Palauans, whose tiny remote Pacific nation of islands lies 500 miles east of the Philippine province of Mindanao, where al-Qaeda-linked separatist groups are engaged in a war with the government. Outwardly welcoming, they admit privately that they are concerned about the arrival of up to 13 Muslims, Uighers originally from landlocked western China, who for the past eight years have been held in the prison camp.
"We are a Christian nation and we will welcome these people into our islands," Pastor Terrence McClure, who heads the Palau Baptist church told The Times. "But we are worried."
"Every day we hear about the kidnappings and the bombings by Muslim terrorists in the Philippines and we worry that it might spread to our islands. Since we first heard about Muslim terrorism we have worried. We would not like it to come to our oasis."
Tiny Palau – population 21,000 – has stepped in where other nations have feared to tread to help President Obama achieve the goal he set in January of closing Guantánamo within a year.
Although the Uighers were cleared for release from Guantánamo Bay more than a year ago and were not classified as enemy combatants, the Obama administration has struggled to find refuge for them elsewhere in the world. Four others have been accepted by Bermuda.
Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, said it was his two most senior tribal chiefs who persuaded him to agree to a US request to give the detainees a home, reminding him of the Palau tradition of helping those without hope.
"Palau has an age-old tradition of accepting helpless people who come to our shores," he said. "I told my two paramount High Chiefs that if we did not accept these men they would be detained or sent to where they would face persecution or execution. They reminded me of our tradition and said, 'Let's accept them'.
"We agreed to do so on humanitarian grounds. They should not be incarcerated any more." The fact that Palau is also getting an extra $200 million (£125 million) in development and budget aid from Washington – more than $11.8 million per Uighur – was not a consideration, he insisted.
"The economic package is not linked to the arrangement, it is just a coincidence," he said. "Palau is the United State's closest ally at this time," he said proudly, adding that just this week a young Palauan-born soldier died fighting for America in Afghanistan.
President Toribiong said he had been assured by Washington that the Uighers posed no terror threat and a delegation from Palau was now at Guantánamo Bay to verify the facts surrounding their arrests. The Uighers were originally detained by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 for allegedly receiving insurgency training aimed against China.
China has repeatedly asked for the Uighers be sent there. Qin Qang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that the United States should "stop handing over terrorist suspects to any third country, so as to expatriate them to China at an early date."
Mr Toribiong shrugged off the Chinese demands and said they would be free to make their home in Palau, after a short period in secure accommodation.
"They are not terrorists, they are international vagabonds," he said. "When they arrive, they will stay in a secure place where they will feel comfortable."
He said the final decision on where, when or how, the Uighers would live on Palau would not be made until consultation with the US had been completed.
"They won't spend any time in jail, but we're not sure yet exactly where they will be placed," he said. "Eventually we will work out an arrangement so they can live within the community." "Wherever they decide to go we will help them."
Islanders suggested that Palau itself was probably the most secure accomodation the US could hope for for its detainees. The one jail, in the capital, Koror, doubles as a tourist attraction and is not regarded as terribly secure. Prisoners work in the community during the day, coming back to sleep in their cells, but have a habit of "forgetting" to go back to jail.
They seldom get far, however. "Everyone knows everyone else and they can't really hide" said Pastor McClure.
The fact that 500 miles of ocean lie between Palau and its nearest neighbour is another deterrent. "There's no way they could escape Palau," said Mr McClure. "You could give them their own little island, it would be perfectly safe."
They would probably want to be located within the 400-strong Muslim population, most of whom are of Bangladeshi origin he said. The increase in Asian labour to Palau in recent years has been a source of resentment among some within the indiginous population. The intelligence group Jane’s projects that indigenous Palauans will become a minority in their own country by 2015. The Uighers will not receive citizenship or be issued with passports as these are given only to ethnic Palauans. "This is an issue that has to be discussed between our government and the US," said a government spokesman, adding that they would be given permits that would allow them to work.
After some thought, he suggested that they might like to get a job at one of the many tourist resorts that are the island's economic lifeblood.
President Toribiong said the moral rationale behind taking the Uighers was clear. "These people have been cleared for release, so why are they being kept incarcerated? They are victims. If it wasn’t for Palau, they would face execution. This is not about terror, this is about human rights."
Eunice Akiwoo, director of the government-run radio WSZB said the islanders themselves did not yet share their president’s enthusiasm for the Guantánamo detainees. "We accept the President's decision, but I'm not saying we are happy about it."
Friday, June 12, 2009
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