President Hamid Karzai welcomed Monday’s handover of the main American-run prison to Afghan forces as a victory for Afghan sovereignty, though he and U.S. officials remain locked in a dispute over the fate of hundreds of Taliban and terror suspects behind bars.
The United States is withholding the transfer of scores of inmates, reportedly out of concern that Afghan authorities simply may let some detainees go and no longer hold dangerous prisoners without charge.
American irritation was apparent at the ceremony at the prison, about 25 miles north of Kabul. No higher-ranking American officers attended, although the Afghan government sent its defense minister, army chief of staff and other officials.
Karzai also did not attend, though he released a statement calling the handover a “very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan.”
“Now, the Bagram prison is converted to one of Afghanistan’s regular prisons where the innocents will be freed and the rest of the prisoners will be sentenced according to the laws of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The more than 2,000 Afghan military policemen now at the prison said the inmates were pleased to be guarded by Afghans.
“We are Afghan, and they are Afghan. They are Muslim. We are Muslim,” said Ashna Gul, a military policeman from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. “We can see each other through the steel windows. Sometimes we are laughing and joking with the prisoners, and they are happy with our guys.”
Firoz Khan, another military policeman from Nangarhar, said some of the inmates ask him to get them more soap and shampoo.
“We sympathize with them because they are prisoners and they are away from their families,” Khan said.
Hours after the handover ceremony, a suicide attack killed 15 people and wounded 25 others in the northern city of Kunduz. The bombing was a stark reminder that insurgents continue their fight against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops and that many detainees at the prison are suspected of organizing such attacks.