BAGRAM AIRBASE - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said he hoped the successful prisoner exchange deal might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants.

"We had been ... working to find ways to open up some possibilities with the Taliban to try to get Sergeant Bergdahl back. This didn't just start," Hagel told reporters travelling with him on a routine visit to Afghanistan.

"This has been an ongoing effort that our government has been involved in at every level ... We found some openings ... that made sense to us," he added. "The timing was right, the pieces came together."

Hagel later met with more than a dozen special operations soldiers at the giant Bagram military base outside Kabul and thanked them for their part in operations to recover Bergdahl. Addressing a larger gathering of troops in a hangar at the base, Hagel said, "This is a happy day for our country, because we got one of our own back."

"Fortunately ... no shots were fired, there was no violence," said Hagel. "It went as well, not only as we had expected and planned but I think as well as it could have."

The commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, spoke of the sense of excitement that swept the headquarters of the international military force there as news of the successful operation filtered through.

"You almost got choked up," he said. "It was pretty extraordinary. It has been almost five years and he is home."

Meanwhile, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar Sunday hailed the release of five senior insurgents in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl as a "big victory". "I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahideen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory regarding the release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison," he said in a rare statement.

"I thank the government of Qatar, especially its emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad (Al Thani), who made sincere efforts for release of these leaders and for their mediation and for hosting them," he added.

Mullah Omar was Afghanistan's de facto head of state during their 1996-2001 rule over Afghanistan. He has continued to lead the group's insurgency since they were ousted from power. His current whereabouts are unconfirmed but some observers believe he is hiding inside Pakistan.

The five transferred Taliban detainees have been named by the US State Department as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.

A Taliban source in the Pakistani city of Quetta told AFP that the five had been officials in the Taliban regime driven out by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and that they remained influential.


The release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for a US soldier has drawn criticism from some Afghans, who say the detainees are dangerous and will rekindle ties with terrorist networks to resume fighting, just as most foreign troops leave.

The men had been held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2002 and were classed by the Pentagon as "high-risk" and "likely to pose a threat".

Two are also implicated in the murder of thousands of minority Shias in Afghanistan, according to the US military.

They were released in a swap with US army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war held in Afghanistan who was flown to a US military hospital in Germany on Sunday.

"They will definitely go back to fight, if health-wise they are able to go," said a top official at Afghanistan's spy agency, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic. "They will be very dangerous people, because they have connections with regional and international terror organisations around the world."

The Taliban denied the prisoners would return to battle but said the swap should not be regarded as a gesture of good will or a step towards the revival of peace talks between Islamist insurgents and the Afghan government.

"This is purely a negotiation between the Taliban and the Americans... It won't help the peace process in any way, because we don't believe in the peace process," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The prisoners would return to their families and live in Qatar - the Gulf emirate that brokered the exchange - where they would lead normal lives, he added.

Many senior Afghan officials and diplomats say the Nato drawdown will happen much faster than expected and reflects a US desire to disengage from Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

The prisoner swap is further evidence of US efforts to tie up as many loose ends as possible before leaving, diplomats say.

"They have made a mess of things," said one Western diplomat, frustrated with the pace of the drawdown. In a further reflection of the rupture in relations between the two countries, the United States did not inform President Hamid Karzai's government about the swap in advance.

His palace declined to comment.

On the streets of the capital Kabul many expressed anger at the decision to release the five men, a contrast with scenes of celebration in Bergdahl's hometown in Idaho.

"This decision showed that the region, Afghanistan and its people aren't worth anything to American government," said Gul Mohammad, a high school teacher.

"Otherwise, why would they swap a useless army soldier who broke the law with the five most dangerous Taliban fighters?"

Some among Afghanistan's security forces also expressed unease about the release, which comes as the Taliban's summer offensive gathers pace ahead of a second round of voting in the presidential election on June 14.

"This act will boost the Taliban's morale and encourage them to fight harder to capture foreign soldiers. Now they are confident that their efforts won't be wasted," said army colonel Asadullah Samadi.