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Britain asks U.S. to release 5 men from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay

    LONDON — Britain called Tuesday for the Bush administration to release five British residents held at Guantanamo Bay — a policy reversal that suggests new Prime Minister Gordon Brown is pursuing a tougher line with the U.S. than his predecessor.
    Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that the five men be freed, the Foreign Office said.
    The new call contrasts with former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s refusal for years to intervene in most Guantanamo cases. His government pressed for the release of nine British citizens, and one resident who had provided help to British intelligence services. But it refused to intervene in the plight of other British residents, saying as recently as March that it could not help people who were not citizens.
    The men in Miliband’s request — Saudi citizen Shaker Aamer, Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, Libyan-born Omar Deghayes, Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed and Algerian Abdennour Sameur — all had been granted refugee status, indefinite leave or exceptional leave to remain in Britain before they were detained, the Foreign Office statement said.
    ‘‘Discussions with the U.S. government about the release and return of these five men may take some time,’’ it said.
    In Washington, the State Department said the request was being reviewed in line with the Bush administration’s stated desire to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo with an eye toward closing the facility.
    ‘‘Our policy has been for quite some time to work with countries who have an interest in either having their nationals returned or taking responsibility for third-country nationals,’’ spokesman Sean McCormack said, encouraging Britain and others to accept more detainees and ‘‘share the burden’’ of dealing with terror suspects.
    McCormack stressed that any transfers from Guantanamo must be contingent on assurances that the detainees will be secured, but not be mistreated.
    ‘‘We don’t want to be the world’s jailers,’’ he said. ‘‘At the same time we also don’t want to see very dangerous people allowed to walk the streets freely so they can pose a threat to our citizens as well as others.’’
    Britain’s Foreign Office said the government will ‘‘take all necessary measures to maintain national security’’ when the five men in Miliband’s letter return to Britain. But it did not say whether any would be subject to control orders, a form of house arrest used to monitor terrorism suspects.
    Although many of his ministers called directly for Guantanamo to be shut, Blair said that the prison camp was an ‘‘anomaly,’’ and did not press President Bush to close it.
    But U.S. steps to reduce the numbers of detainees at the military prison in Cuba prompted Miliband and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to review the British government’s approach, the Foreign Office said.
    ‘‘We see this as a major change on the government’s position. Prior to this, they were not calling for the release of the British residents,’’ said Moazzam Begg, a Briton who was detained at Guantanamo Bay for two years before being released in 2005.
    ‘‘It’s taken us 5 1/2 years to get to this point,’’ he said. ‘‘There are children that have never seen their fathers. There are parents who died while their children have been locked away. But finally there seems to be some light at the end of a very long tunnel.’’
    Five Britons were freed in March 2004 and four in January 2005, including Begg, the Foreign Office said.
    Bisher al-Rawi, a 37-year-old Iraqi national and British resident, was released from the camp in April after five years in detention. But British officials only took up his case after it was disclosed he had assisted MI5, Britain’s domestic spy agency.
    Al-Rawi’s U.S. lawyer, George Brent Mickum IV, said last year that al-Rawi had agreed to work for the British security service in exchange for his release. Nothing came of the offer, Mickum said.
    ‘‘This change of policy is extremely welcome, especially if it signals a bigger change of approach on both sides of the Atlantic,’’ James Welch, legal director of the civil rights group Liberty, said in a statement.
    Brown’s Downing Street office and the Foreign Office declined to confirm whether Brown had discussed the plan with Bush during their Camp David summit last week. Miliband met Rice for talks in Washington during the same visit.
    El-Banna was arrested with al-Rawi by Gambian authorities in November 2002 and transferred to U.S. detention, Amnesty International said. It said Deghayes and Aamer were captured in Pakistan in 2002.
    Campaign group Reprieve claims Mohamed was held in Morocco for 18 months after being captured in April 2002 in Pakistan and later sent to Guantanamo. Amnesty International said the circumstances of Sameur’s detention were not immediately clear.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Tariq Panja in London and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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