KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan released 65 accused militants from a former U.S. prison on Thursday despite protests from the American military, which says the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.
The move further strains relations between Washington and President Hamid Karzai, whose increasingly anti-American rhetoric and refusal to sign a long-negotiated bilateral security deal has increased uncertainty ahead of the year-end withdrawal of most international combat troops.
Karzai ordered the detainees released several weeks ago, after his government took over the prison from U.S. troops. The decision prompted angry denunciations from Washington. U.S. forces in Afghanistan say some of the men are responsible for killing or wounding dozens of international and Afghan soldiers as well making bombs that have killed civilians.
The prisoners were freed just after 9 a.m. from the Parwan Detention Facility near Bagram Air Field, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Kabul, according to prison spokesman Maj. Nimatullah Khaki.
They boarded a bus to leave the facility, laughing and smiling, he said.
The U.S. has argued for the detainees to face trial in Afghan courts - citing strong evidence against them, from DNA linking them to roadside bombs to explosive residue on their clothing - but Kabul has cited insufficient proof to hold them.
Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory" where innocent Afghans are tortured into hating their country.
The U.S. military late Wednesday night issued a strongly worded statement condemning the imminent release, which it said would include detainees directly linked to attacks that have killed or wounded 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.
A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Thursday called the release "deeply regrettable" and called on Karzai's government to ensure those released do not commit new acts of violence.
"We requested a thorough review of each case. Instead, the evidence against them was never seriously considered," the embassy statement said, adding, "The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision."
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zair Azimi would not comment on U.S concerns.
"Our responsibility is the protection of the prisoners. That is all," Azimi said by telephone.
The 65 were among 88 detainees at the facility that are the subject of dispute between Kabul and Washington. The U.S. says that they are dangerous members of the Taliban insurgency, the Haqqani group of militants and other Islamic radicals bent on fighting foreign and Afghan government forces.
Among those believed to have walked free Thursday morning was Mohammad Wali, who the U.S. military says is a suspected Taliban explosives expert who allegedly placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and international forces. The military said Wali had been biometrically linked to two roadside explosions and had a latent fingerprint match on another improvised explosive device. He had also tested positive for explosives residue.
Others in the group include Nek Mohammad - who the U.S. says was captured with extensive weapons - and a man identified as Ehsanullah, who is claimed to have been biometrically matched to a roadside bomb and who tested positive for explosives residue.
The U.S. military had formally disputed the prisoners' release, but an Afghan review board had effectively overruled those challenges.
The detainees' release has been in the works for weeks, and comes as Karzai has taken an increasingly hostile tone toward the U.S. ahead of the withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.
The president has refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement would allow about 10,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from allied nations to remain in Afghanistan past 2014, largely to help train Afghanistan security forces to take over the fight against the Taliban and other militants 13 years after the international military intervention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. The NATO-backed coalition toppled the Taliban's regime of hard-line Islamic law for sheltering the al-Qaida leadership behind the U.S. attacks.
Karzai had tentatively endorsed the bilateral security deal after it was completed last October, but after it was approved by a council of tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga in November, he refused to sign it - saying he wants his successor to decide about it after the April 5 presidential election. Karzai cannot run because he is ineligible to serve a third term.
The U.S. wants the deal signed as soon as possible because it needs time to prepare to keep thousands of U.S. troops in the country for up to a decade. NATO allies also have said they won't stay if the Americans pull out.