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Family, hometown celebrate U.S. soldier's release from Taliban

A file photo of Sergant Bowe Bergdahl By United States Army (http://blog.oregonlive.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A file photo of Sergant Bowe Bergdahl By United States Army (http://blog.oregonlive.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Sweeney

HAILEY Idaho (Reuters) - Balloons, symbolic yellow ribbons and celebratory signs sprouted up in the small mountain community of Hailey, Idaho, on Saturday after news that native son U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been freed after almost five years as a prisoner of the Taliban.

Bergdahl's parents said they were ecstatic to hear the news from President Barack Obama, whom they later joined at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

"We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home," Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement released through the Idaho National Guard. "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son."

A senior U.S. defense official said the Bergdahls, who live in Hailey, happened to be in Washington when they got the news their son had been freed in a deal that resulted in five Taliban members held at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, being turned over to Qatar.

"We want to thank Bowe's many supporters in Idaho, around the nation and around the world," the Bergdahls said.

Sue Martin, owner of Zaney's, a Hailey coffee shop where Bowe Bergdahl once worked, said the Bergdahls shared credit for their son's release.

"It is unprecedented when a father learns the language of his son's captors so he can communicate directly with them," Martin said. "Bob and Jani spent all their waking hours since Bowe was captured working for his safe return home and that's at hand."

Bergdahl, 28, the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war, was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.

PLANNED VIGIL BECOMES RALLY

Bergdahl was on his way to an American military hospital in Germany on Saturday and it was not yet known when he would be coming back to the United States.

But news of his release prompted celebration in his hometown of Hailey, where residents were gathering at Zaney's River Street Coffee House. Cars honked their horns in support as they drove by the place, which had been decked with fresh yellow ribbons and banners reading "Bowe is Free at Last!"

"Today, tomorrow, for days to come, it's about celebrating the release of our native son," said Stefanie O'Neill, a friend of the Bergdahls and co-organizer of a June 28 rally that will celebrate Bergdahl's release.

The town had been planning a vigil for that date as part of a long-running "Bring Bowe Back" campaign, and changed it to a "Bowe is Back" event, O'Neill explained.

Signs reading "Standing with Bowe" decorated storefronts in the community of about 8,000 people, which makes up part of an affluent central Idaho ski resort region.

"The people of this community have been living with yellow ribbons around trees and yellow 'Bring Bowe Home' stickers plastered everywhere for so long that it won't seem real at first," said Mike McKenna, a town resident who publishes the Sun Valley Magazine. "When Bowe finally comes back to Hailey...the celebration will really begin.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Laura Zuckerman and Carey Gillam; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Jonathan Allen, Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler)

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