By Andrea Shalal-Esa and David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Thursday it had transferred two men from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the government of Algeria as part of its ongoing effort to close the controversial prison.
The Pentagon said Nabil Said Hadjarab and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab were transferred on Wednesday and arrived in Algeria the same day, leaving 164 detainees at Guantanamo, including 84 others cleared for release years ago.
The two Algerians were detained in Afghanistan more than a decade ago and sent to Guantanamo prison - Hadjarab on January 20, 2002, and Sayyab on February 15, 2002.
The Obama administration first announced plans to repatriate the two inmates last month, resuming the transfer of detainees for the first time in nearly a year.
The Pentagon said the decision to release the two men followed a comprehensive review by an interagency task force which looked at security issues and other factors.
Classified Defense Department files released by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks said Hadjarab, 34, who was raised in Algeria and France, was believed to be a member of the al Qaeda Global Jihad Support Network with ties to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group.
He traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 where he received AK-47 training in Jalalabad. After the U.S.-led invasion, he fled to the Tora Bora mountains with other al Qaeda supporters. He was wounded by a U.S. helicopter while trying to flee Tora Bora and was later captured by Afghan troops, the U.S. documents said.
Sayyab, 37, also is considered to be a member of the Al Qaeda support network and is thought to have received training in making improvised explosive devices from the Moroccan Armed Islamic Group in Jalalabad, U.S. documents said.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States he traveled over the Tora Bora mountains trying to reach Pakistan. He was detained by Pakistani authorities and later handed over to U.S. forces, the documents said.
President Barack Obama has vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo, which has held dozens of prisoners, most without charge, for more than a decade. But the process has dragged on for years.
Obama promised to close the facility during his 2008 presidential campaign, citing its damage to the U.S. reputation around the world, but he has been unable to do so in 4-1/2 years in office, in part because of resistance from Congress.
"Closing Guantanamo remains a priority," said Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. "For this reason, we continue to seek a lifting of the current restrictions that significantly limit our ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, even those who have already been designated for transfer."
Breasseale said Wednesday's transfers were possible because the two men were among the few detainees going to a country that was not specifically barred by legislative restrictions and Algeria was willing to provide the security and humane treatment assurances required by the United States.
The Guantanamo prison camp was established during the presidency of George W. Bush to house foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States.
A hunger strike and daily feeding of dozens of inmates through a tube inserted through the nose into the stomach has fueled calls to shut the detention center.
Last month lawmakers blasted the prison's cost, about $2.7 million per prisoner per year, compared with $70,000 per inmate at maximum-security federal prisons.
The last prisoner transferred out of Guantanamo was Omar Khadr, the youngest inmate and last Westerner held at the base. He was sent in September to finish his sentence in his native Canada.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Jackie Frank)