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US defends decision to swap Taliban for captive soldier

The United States on Sunday defended its decision to allow five Taliban detainees to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar to secure the release of a US soldier held in Afghanistan, saying time was running short.

WASHINGTON: The United States on Sunday defended its decision to allow five Taliban detainees to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar to secure the release of a US soldier held in Afghanistan, saying time was running short.

Republican lawmakers have sharply criticised the move to send the five senior Taliban figures to Qatar to facilitate the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured nearly five years ago, saying it sets a bad precedent and endangers US soldiers still in Afghanistan.

Some have even suggested that the administration of President Barack Obama may have broken the law by failing to notify Congress 30 days before the Guantanamo detainees were transferred.

But National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Bergdahl's health was deteriorating, and Washington had no choice but to do whatever was necessary to bring the 28-year-old army sergeant home.

"When we are in battles with terrorists and terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner still is a US serviceman or woman. We still have an obligation to bring that person back," Rice told CNN.

"Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back."

US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, speaking to NBC's "Meet the Press" from Bagram air base in Afghanistan, insisted: "We didn't negotiate with terrorists."

"This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years," he said. "Let's focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family."

Rice said the US government acted on the chance to gain Bergdahl's freedom -- with the help of the Qatari government as an intermediary -- in part due to mounting concerns about his health.

"He had lost a good bit of weight and we were very concerned that time was not something we could play with, that we needed to act when we had the opportunity," she said.

On the issue of congressional notification, Rice said Bergdahl's failing health had created an "acute urgency" to act, which made it "necessary and appropriate" not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement.

Following that requirement "would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sergeant Bergdahl would have been lost," she said, adding that Congress was notified before the detainees were transferred.

"We could not take the risk of losing the opportunity to bring him back safely."

Rice refused to provide specifics about the security arrangements made with Qatar about the five Taliban figures, reiterating only that their movements and activities would be restricted.

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