(ABC)— Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been released after nearly five years of Taliban captivity, President Obama announced today.
“On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal,” Obama said in a written statement released this afternoon.
In a written statement Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, thanked Obama and the Qatari emir, who helped facilitate the deal to release their son.
“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son. We want to thank Bowe’s many supporters in Idaho, around the nation and around the world. We thank the Amir of Qatar for his efforts. And of course, we want to take this opportunity to thank all those in the many U.S. Government agencies who never gave up. Today, we are ecstatic!” the Bergdahls wrote.
Bergdahl was discovered missing from his unit in Afghanistan in June 2009. He was declared to have been captured by the Taliban soon after.
His freedom was secured in exchange for the release of five prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said on Saturday that Bergdahl is now under the care of the U.S. military.
“[T]oday, I informed Congress of the decision to transfer five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised. I appreciate the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to put these measures in place, and I want to thank him for his instrumental role in facilitating the return of Sgt. Bergdahl,” Hagel said.
At about 10:30 a.m. ET, U.S. special forces recovered Bergdahl from his captors, in a peaceful handoff in eastern Afghanistan, a senior Defense official told ABC News, recounting the operation. About 18 Taliban were present.
The U.S. forces flew to the meeting in helicopters, and once Bergdahl was aboard, he wrote on a paper plate (instead of talking over the noise of the rotors), “SF?” meaning, “Special Forces?”
The operators sitting with Bergdahl responded loudly, saying, “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Bergdahl broke down crying, the Defense official said.
The transfer was negotiated through local Qatari government representatives, not directly through the Haqqani network, the Taliban-supporting militant group that held Bergdahl. Talks of the exchange began about a week ago; several weeks ago, an opportunity arose for talks to resume, and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, brokered them.
The U.S. has received “appropriate assurances” that the five Guantanamo detainees will be secured in Qatar and will be subject to a travel ban for one year, the Defense official said. The White House has not yet responded to a request to clarify whether the Guantanamo detainees will be held in Qatari custody or free to live as legal residents. The Obama administration has not released the names of the five detainees who will be transferred from Guantanamo.
The U.S. believes Bergdahl was held in Pakistan for the bulk of his captivity, the Defense official said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he has “briefed” Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Bergdahl’s release and Obama’s recent announcement of plans to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, gradually drawing them down and limiting the U.S. mission there to training Afghan troops and conducting counterterrorism activities. Kerry welcomed Bergdahl’s release in a written statement.
“Our nation has a sober and solemn duty to ensure that every single American who signs up to serve our country comes home. The cost of years of captivity to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his family is immeasurable,” Kerry said. “Today, we are heartened that Sgt. Bergdahl will soon by reunited with his family and friends, from whom he has been apart for far too long.”
Since Bergdahl’s capture, his family has pressed for his release, and this year the Obama administration reportedly began considering a prisoner swap to get him freed, as “Good Morning America” reported in February.
U.S. officials believed Bergdahl was being held somewhere in Pakistan and hoped to secure his release before U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan. In January, Bergdahl’s father launched a White House petition to secure his son’s freedom.
“Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield. And as we find relief in Bowe’s recovery, our thoughts and prayers are with those other Americans whose release we continue to pursue,” Obama said today, thanking the emir of Qatar and the government of Afghanistan for helping to facilitate the release.