WASHINGTON – Italy has agreed to accept three detainees from Guantanamo Bay, President Barack Obama said Monday, as the administration continues its struggle to find homes for the prisoners so the facility can be shut down early next year.
Speaking after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Obama praised the leader for supporting U.S. efforts to close Guantanamo, saying his assistance “is very important to us.”
Working to fulfil his pledge to shutter the prison, Obama has been pressing foreign allies to take some of the detainees. His efforts to have some of the prisoners released in the U.S. or sent to American facilities have been stymied by stiff opposition from members of Congress.
In the past week, the administration has made some progress – securing a key agreement with the European Union and transferring 10 detainees out of Guantanamo. One prisoner was sent to New York to stand trial, while others were transferred to Chad, Iraq, Bermuda and Saudi Arabia. The latest announcement by Italy means that there will now be 226 detainees remaining at the prison.
The EU agreement announced on Monday said that European nations are ready to help the Obama administration “turn the page” on Guantanamo, and take detainees on a case-by-case basis. The announcement did not provide details on the names of the countries or the number of prisoners they might take.
The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, meanwhile, said it would accept 13 Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo.
On Monday in the White House, Obama credited Italy for its participation in the EU agreement.
“It will give us an opportunity to create a lasting and durable international legal framework for dealing with terrorism that I think is very important on both sides of the Atlantic,” Obama said.
Obama also dispatched his pointman for closing Guantanamo, Daniel Fried, to Europe this week to negotiate additional transfers, State Department officials said. Fried plans to visit Spain, Portugal and Hungary on his mission, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations.
Last month, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini hinted at a Guantanamo deal, saying that Italy was considering a U.S. request to take two Tunisian prisoners.
Besides the Guantanamo prisoners who might be freed, tried or turned over to foreign governments, there are still other suspected terrorists there, who are considered high-profile detainees that could be neither freed nor tried. These prisoners – “people who in effect remain at war with the United States,” Obama has said – include detainees who may have received extensive al-Qaida training, commanded Taliban troops or sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
Berlusconi’s meeting with Obama offered the Italian leader a chance to rehabilitate his international reputation after a scandal over his link to an 18-year-old model and ahead of a major summit he is hosting next month.
Obama was looking for common ground on recovering from the economic crisis, which will feature prominently at the July summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in L’Aquila, the Apennine mountain town that was devastated by an earthquake this spring.
The two leaders also discussed the situation in the Middle East, Afghanistan – where Italy has about 2,800 troops – and Iran.
A Berlusconi aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as is customary, said the premier is considering temporarily sending more than 500 police officers, troops, police instructors and pilots to Afghanistan to bolster its contingent there in the run-up to the Aug. 20 election.
The leaders offered a striking contrast.
Obama is a young, dynamic president with a squeaky-clean family image and a reputation for self-control – hence his nickname, “No Drama Obama.” He is much admired abroad, especially in Western Europe.
On the other hand, Berlusconi, a media mogul and one of Italy’s richest men, has been plagued by criminal trials, conflict-of-interest accusations, tawdry scandals and headline-making gaffes that have drawn scorn from other countries, although they have done little to lower his high popularity rating at home.
Berlusconi made headlines shortly after the U.S. presidential election when he said Obama is “young, he’s handsome and he even has a good tan.” The Italian leader, however, has traditionally entertained very friendly relations with the U.S. and he’s seeking to establish a personal relationship with the young, popular president akin to the one he had with Bush.
Associated Press Writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.