KABUL, Afghanistan — Disregarding heated American protests, Afghanistan released 65 accused militants from a former U.S. prison on Thursday, despite warnings that the men are dangerous Taliban fighters and bomb-makers likely to return to killing foreign forces and Afghans.
The freeing of the men from the Parwan Detention Center further strains relations between Washington and President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader's increasingly anti-American rhetoric and refusal to sign a long-negotiated bilateral security deal has heightened uncertainty ahead of the year-end withdrawal of most international forces.
Outrage over Karzai's decision also mirrors the mistrust and resentment that has developed between the ostensible allies in recent years. The souring of sentiment has often played out in a tug-of-war over control of the detention facility near the American military's Bagram Air Field, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Kabul.
Karzai reacted sharply to the strong U.S. and NATO criticism over the releases, saying it was not up to foreign powers to determine Afghan justice.
"Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If Afghanistan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it is of no concern to the United States," Karzai said at the end of a summit with Pakistani and Turkish leaders in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
Thursday's move could be a gesture by Karzai to try to woo the Taliban insurgents into joining peace talks with his government before he leaves office later this year, since he is unable to serve a third term.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen strongly condemned the release.
"This decision, which appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts, is a major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan and poses serious security concerns," Rasmussen said in a statement.
For the U.S., the release of the men the American military calls "dangerous insurgents who have Afghan blood on their hands" is another sign of Karzai's erratic behavior and the weakness of Afghanistan's justice system. A military spokesman said many of the 65 were captured after Afghan authorities took over the prison last March, and dossiers of evidence had been handed over to try them in Afghan courts.
For Karzai, the very existence of a U.S.-run prison on Afghan soil — where hundreds of other prisoners were held without charge as enemy combatants starting in 2002 — had long been a symbol of American arrogance and disregard for his elected government.
Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory," where innocent Afghans have been tortured into hating their country. He called it a "very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan" when the prison was finally handed over to Afghan control.
Karzai, who ordered the 65 detainees released several weeks ago, insisted Thursday that the decision was made by the Afghan judiciary after a thorough review.
The men were freed just after 9 a.m. and boarded a bus to leave the facility, laughing and smiling, according to prison spokesman Maj. Nimatullah Khaki.
Among those believed to have walked free is Mohammad Wali, who the U.S. military says is a suspected Taliban explosives expert who allegedly planted roadside bombs targeting Afghan and international forces. Also believed released is 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.
The U.S. military said Thursday that some of those set free were 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 also condemned the release.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi would not comment on the U.S concerns.
"Our responsibility is the protection of the prisoners. That is all," Azimi said by telephone.
Some Afghans who live near the Parwan prison expressed unease over the release.
"I think they will return back to their people, to the Taliban," said Ahmad Shayeq, whose home is near the facility.
The U.S. military had formally disputed the prisoners' release and asked that they be tried in Afghan courts, but an Afghan review board had overruled those challenges.
The detainees' release comes as Karzai has taken an increasingly hostile tone toward the U.S. and amid reports that the president has been trying to open his own peace negotiations with the Taliban as a potential legacy. Karzai is constitutionally ineligible to serve a third term, and elections to choose his successor are scheduled for April 5.
"I believe this is politically motivated," said Hamidullah Farooqi, a professor at Kabul University. "He wants to send some sort of sign to the Taliban that they are ready for any steps to create an atmosphere for peace talks. ... At the same time, he does also want to display for his legacy Afghanistan's sovereignty."
The president has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow a few thousand U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan past this year, largely to help train Afghan security forces to take over the fight against the Taliban 13 years after the military intervention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S. The NATO-backed coalition toppled the Taliban regime for sheltering the al-Qaida leadership behind the U.S. attacks.
Several attempts to end the war through peace talks have fallen through, but Taliban figures recently confirmed preliminary discussions with Karzai's envoys, though the talks appear to have gone nowhere.