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Washington (AFP) – The last three Uighurs who had languished in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade despite facing no charges have been freed and sent to Slovakia, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

“This transfer and resettlement constitutes a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement, thanking Slovakia for taking the three men in.

Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik, and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper, who were transferred from the U.S. military jail in Guantanamo Bay, southeastern Cuba, were the last of a group of 22 ethnic Chinese Muslims captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

They had been cleared since 2008 for release from the notorious jail — opened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States — but the United States refused to return them to China where they faced persecution, and had struggled to find a third country to take them in.

All the Uighurs have been now resettled in six countries over the years, including Albania, Palau and El Salvador.

“The United States is grateful to the government of Slovakia for this humanitarian gesture and its willingness to support U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” Kirby added in his statement.

Department of State special envoy Cliff Sloan added Washington had cooperated closely with Slovakia over the transfers.

“We have worked together on humanitarian migration issues for many years, and this important humanitarian action reflects Slovakia’s sustained assistance, which, on the issue of Guantanamo, began in 2009,” Sloan said in a statement.

The Uighurs — members of a largely Muslim people who have long accused China of discrimination — were cleared years ago of wrongdoing and had been staying in a special part of the prison with a library and recreational space.

In principle, Washington has been seeking to send cleared inmates to their home country. But it has refused Beijing’s demands to repatriate the Uighurs, saying they would face almost certain persecution.

Uighurs hail from China’s western Xinjiang region, which in 2009 witnessed some of the country’s deadliest ethnic violence in years.

The Guantanamo releases were announced a day after a new outbreak of violence, when Chinese authorities said they had shot dead eight “attackers” armed with knives and explosives during a “terrorist attack” on a Xinjiang police station.

An exiled Uighur group on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into the incident.

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