Saturday, June 13, 2009

Palau Boss: Just A Freaking Coincidence

by Dan Rea

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.

"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.

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