US & Canada

Bowe Bergdahl: Chuck Hagel defends US-Taliban deal

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Media captionChuck Hagel: "His life, his health were in peril"

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the decision to strike a deal with the Taliban for the release of a US soldier was unanimous in the White House.

Mr Hagel told the BBC the agreement was made because it was believed Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's life was "in peril".

Barack Obama's administration had to act quickly and without first consulting Congress, he added.

Sgt Bergdahl was freed after five years in captivity, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

'Made a judgement'

The White House is required to notify Congress 30 days before transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay but decided that waiting was too risky.

"It was our judgement based on the information that we had that his life, his health were in peril," Mr Hagel told the BBC.

"Can you imagine if we would have waited or taken the chance of leaks over a 30-day period?

"I will tell you what I know and I made a judgement on this too - that would have seriously imperilled us ever getting him out."

President Obama also defended the deal at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday.

"I make absolutely no apologies for making sure we get back a young man to his parents," he said, reiterating Mr Hagel's comments about concern for the soldier's health.

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Media captionA video released by the Taliban shows Sgt Bowe Bergdahl being handed over
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Media captionChuck Hagel spoke at length to the BBC's Katty Kay in June 2014

Mr Hagel was speaking the day after a welcoming party in Sgt Bergdahl's home town of Hailey, Idaho, was cancelled, and amid suggestions that he deserted his post.

Organisers said the event was called off for safety reasons after a large increase in the number of expected attendees.

Several commentators and soldiers have branded Sgt Bergdahl a deserter and called for him to be punished.

The circumstances of Sgt Bergdahl's capture in 2009 remain unclear, although the Pentagon has concluded he left his post in Paktika Province without authorisation.

Authorities in Hailey, a small town of 8,000 people, said they had been inundated with messages of protest and complaint about the homecoming event.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Sgt Bowe Bergdahl went missing in June 2009 and was the Taliban's only US prisoner of war
Image copyright AP
Image caption Footage of the release showed him sitting in a pick-up truck, before being walked to a helicopter
Image copyright AP
Image caption Residents of Hailey, Idaho, have celebrated the news that Sgt Bergdahl has been freed

Mr Hagel defended the deal for Sgt Bergdahl's release and said the US Army would be investigating the situation surrounding the kidnapping.

"This was the right decision for the right reasons," he said. "We don't leave our people behind.

"Why the disappearance? The army has already addressed that, and we'll get to that."

Critics of the deal have alleged that six US soldiers were killed in the initial efforts to locate the missing man.

The US military's top-ranking officer, Gen Martin Dempsey, said on Tuesday that the army would not ignore misconduct but that the 28-year-old was "innocent until proven guilty".

Under the agreement to free the US soldier, five Taliban prisoners were handed over to the custody of Qatar, the Gulf state which brokered the deal.

Sgt Bergdahl is currently in a military hospital in Germany undergoing rehabilitation. It is not yet known when he will return to the US.

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