Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has hailed the exchange of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for a Taliban-held U.S. soldier as a "big victory," as the U.S. government defended the deal in the face of Republican criticism.
In a rare public statement on June 1, Mullah said "I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation."
Mullah Omar fled Afghanistan in 2001 when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban. He is believed to be hiding inside Pakistan.
Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier held by the Taliban, was handed to U.S. forces in Afghanistan on May 31 and flown to Germany for treatment.
At a press conference in Boise, Idaho, on June 1, Bergdahl's mother, Jani who was with her husband Bob by her side, said "We've been working very, very hard for your release these last five years along with the whole of our government, even other governments, and most especially, of course, Qatar."
The deal which secured his release saw the transfer of five Taliban insurgents from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
A Taliban commander said Bergdahl had mostly been held in tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan since his capture in 2009.
The U.S. government has defended the swap amid criticism from Republicans who said the deal put Americans at risk, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States had to act quickly to save the soldier's life.
But Republican Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war and Vietnam War veteran, said there were legitimate questions to be asked about the conditions under which the Taliban prisoners were released.
McCain said about those released, "These are the hardest of the hard core."
According to media reports, the five Taliban transfered to Qatar are Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence; Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001; Khairullah Khairkhwa, who had direct ties to Mullah Omar and late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden; Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan; Muhammad Fazl, who Human Rights Watch says allegedly presided over the mass killing of Shi'ite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
Under the conditions of release, the five are to stay on Qatar's territory for at least a year.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry said that "handing over prisoners to a third country is a breach of international law."
With reporting by AFP, AP, and BBC