Former Guantanamo Bay detainees on Tuesday thanked the people of Palau for taking them in, but signaled the Pacific Island nation would be only a temporary home.
"We are extremely grateful to the president of Palau and the people of Palau who have graciously accepted us and given us this home," Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman told The Associated Press, in the first comments by the former detainees since they arrived on Sunday.
"The U.S. government told us this would be a temporary home. We will study English here, look for a job and establish our new lives in this beautiful country," he said, speaking through a U.S. government-appointed interpreter.
The six ethnic Chinese Muslims began general orientation of their new home on Tuesday, getting their first look at the capital of Koror and meeting some officials. They were wary of reporters and of drawing too much attention to themselves, and would answer only a few questions.
President Johnson Toribiong welcomed the group when they arrived before dawn Sunday on a secret flight, and he will treat them to a personal tour of the Rock Islands, a diving attraction that is country's top tourist destination, later this week.
The former detainees are ethnic Uighurs from the far western province of Xinjiang, one of the most landlocked regions on earth. They are making the jump from the prison-like conditions of Guantanamo to another alien environment -- the leisurely pace of a palm-fringed tropical island.
They were among 22 Chinese Muslims picked up by American forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 on suspicion of terrorism. They were taken eventually to Guantanamo, where they were held without trial as enemy combatants.
The Uighurs were approved for release after a federal court ruled they were not enemy combatants, but they spent months in legal limbo as U.S. officials tried to find somewhere to send them. Beijing calls them terrorists and has demanded they be returned to China, where activists say they would face persecution and possibly death.
After protracted negotiations, the six agreed to accept Palau's offer of resettlement. Seven others are still at Guantanamo. One of them did not receive an invitation to resettle in Palau over concerns about his mental health.
Lawyers for the remaining Uighurs at Guantanamo say that among their clients' concerns about Palau is the lack of an existing Uighur population, and the difficulties they might face in fitting in.
Palau is an archipelago of about 200 islands 800 miles east of the Philippines. It has just 20,000 residents, most of them of Micronesian origin with strong clan and family ties, and overwhelmingly Christian.
There is a Muslim community roughly 500-strong and comprising mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers who say they will welcome the Uighurs as long as they follow Islamic traditions of peace and brotherhood.
But adding to the Uighurs resettlement difficulties, Toribiong announced recently his government would send up to 300 Bangladeshi workers home because their visas had expired.
The United States is paying Palau a little less than $100,000 for each Uighur to cover housing, educating and food costs, Toribiong said.
Toribiong says the Uighurs' resettlement is temporary, but could last months or years.
Though they won't get Palauan passports, Toribiong says, the Uighurs will be free to leave Palau -- if they can find a country that will take them.
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