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Fri 6 Jan 2017 01:42 AM

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Yemeni detainees land in Saudi Arabia after transfer from Guantanamo

About 40 prisoners will remain at Guantanamo if the last round of transfers goes according to plan

Yemeni detainees land in Saudi Arabia after transfer from Guantanamo
Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba

The United States transferred four Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia on Thursday as President Barack Obama pushed to shrink the inmate total there despite Donald Trump's call to stop.

It was the first of Obama's final transfers aimed at sending as many as 19 prisoners to at least four countries - Italy, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - before the Republican president-elect is sworn in on Jan. 20.

There were emotional reunions with families at the royal airport in the capital Riyadh, with one man bending down to kiss his sobbing mother's feet as she cried "God is great."

About 40 prisoners will remain at Guantanamo if the last round of transfers goes according to plan. Obama pledged during his 2008 presidential campaign to close the controversial facility at the US naval base in Cuba.

Trump has vowed to keep it open and "load it up with some bad dudes."

Saudi Arabia's state news agency identified the freed detainees as Mohammed Rajab Sadiq Abu Ghanem, Salem Ahmed Hadi bin Kanad, Abdullah Yehya Yousef al-Shibli and Mohammed Bawazir.

The four were sent to Saudi Arabia because the Obama administration has ruled out returning them to their homeland, which is engulfed in civil war and has an active al Qaeda branch.

Held since 2002, shortly after the prison opened, Bawazir was among prisoners who protested his indefinite detention with a lengthy hunger strike. A federal court ruled in 2009 that his forced feeding did not constitute torture. He has been cleared for transfer since 2010.

Ghanem, captured by Pakistani forces on the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2001, was taken to Guantanamo in 2002. He was classified for continued detention in 2010, but approved for transfer in mid-2016.

Kanad was also deemed a continued risk in 2010 but was declared eligible for transfer last year. Shibli, a Saudi-born Yemeni, was approved for transfer in 2010.

Detainees transferred on Thursday or due to leave in the coming days make up the bulk of the 23 prisoners declared to be safe for repatriation or resettlement.

Trump said on Tuesday all of those held at Guantanamo should remain, despite lengthy inter-agency reviews that deemed many of them eligible for transfer.

"There should be no further releases from Gitmo," he tweeted. "These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield."

The White House has dismissed his objections and said transfers from Guantanamo, opened by former President George W. Bush to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, will continue until he takes office.

Of the 55 prisoners left at Guantanamo after Thursday's transfer, 10 face charges in military commissions, including alleged plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks. About two dozen have not been charged but have been deemed too dangerous to release.

It was unclear whether the four detainees who arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday would be released immediately.

Last April, the Islamic kingdom - a top US ally in the Middle East - accepted nine Yemenis and put them through a Saudi government-run rehabilitation program that seeks to reintegrate militants into society.

Obama, who has called Guantanamo a "recruiting tool" for terrorists, has slowly whittled the number of detainees downward from the 242 there when he took office in 2009. Under Bush, the prison came to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to accusations of torture.

Obama's efforts to close the prison have been blocked by mostly Republican opposition in Congress, which has barred him from moving any prisoners to the US mainland. Foot-dragging by Pentagon officials has also been blamed for slowing transfers.