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Pentagon: If freed Afghan prisoners return to fight, they're 'legitimate targets'

By Eliott C. McLaughlin and Laquasha Bivens, CNN
updated 4:35 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Admiral: If prisoners return to the fight, "they become legitimate enemies"
  • U.S. Embassy in Kabul says the prisoner release is "deeply regrettable"
  • U.S. military says some of those freed are linked to attacks on U.S. troops
  • Afghanistan says it doesn't have enough evidence to keep them behind bars

(CNN) -- The Pentagon took issue Friday with the Afghan government's claim that there was a lack of evidence against 65 prisoners released this week over staunch U.S. objections.

"All of these individuals are people who should not be walking the streets," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. "And we had strong evidence on all of them, evidence that has been ignored, and that's unsatisfactory to us."

He added that the prisoners posed threats not just to U.S. forces, but also civilians, as many of the prisoners were accused of killing innocent Afghans as well.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan has said some of the men are linked to attacks that killed or wounded 32 American or coalition service members and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.

"They're still very dangerous individuals who should have remained locked up," Kirby said. "There's not going to be an active targeting campaign ... to go after them. That said, if they choose to return to the fight, they become legitimate enemies and legitimate targets."

Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, the Afghan attorney general, said Thursday that the decision to release the prisoners was made "according to our law," and Abdul Shukor Dadras, head of the Afghan Review Board, said the attorney general ordered the releases from the Parwan Detention Center -- formerly known as Bagram prison -- after a careful review of 88 cases.

In a statement posted on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the move "deeply regrettable," saying the Afghan government "bears responsibility for the results of its decision."

Kirby suggested the move by the Afghan government endangers the military mission there and is "unhelpful to the relationship that, that we want to have with Afghanistan."

He said that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel feels that this decision, along with other recent decisions made by Kabul "make it that much harder for many of those on the Hill in Congress to further support the Afghan missions."

A 23-page document obtained by CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr from a U.S. military official who asked not to be identified said about 19 of the released men were associated with direct attacks that killed or wounded 60 U.S. or coalition force members. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

According to the document, 25 of the men were linked to the production or placement of IEDs; 33 tested positive for explosive residue when processed after capture; and 26 were associated with attacks that killed or wounded 57 Afghan citizens and Afghan National Security Forces.

Prior to the prisoners' release, U.S. authorities had repeatedly aired their displeasure over the plans.

"We have made clear our judgment that these individuals should be prosecuted under Afghan law. We requested that the cases be carefully reviewed," the U.S. military said ahead of the release. "But the evidence against them was never seriously considered, including by the attorney general, given the short time since the decision was made to transfer these cases to the Afghan legal system."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "gravely concerned" by the decision, "which appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts." In a statement, he called it "a major step backwards for the rule of law in Afghanistan."

The U.S. military noted that the group included an alleged Taliban explosives expert, a suspected Haqqani network commander and a specialist accused of building and placing improvised explosive devices.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai defended the releases and slammed the United States for criticizing them.

"Afghanistan is a sovereign country," he said. "If the Afghan authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States would stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority and I hope that the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty."

CNN's Tom Watkins, Jethro Mullen, Catherine E. Shoichet, Qadir Sediqi, Elizabeth Joseph and Sara Mazloumsaki contributed to this report.

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