LONDON -- Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked the United States yesterday to free five British residents from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a policy reversal that was welcomed by the Bush administration.
The United States has been working to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo with an eye toward closing the controversial detention center.
In some cases where a detainee is likely to be mistreated in his native country, the Bush administration has been appealing to nations with respected human rights records to take the Guantanamo Bay detainees it does not intend to try in US military courts.
US officials said yesterday that Brown's decision to ask for the transfer of non-British nationals was a positive step in broader efforts to cutback the number of inmates and eventually close down Guantanamo.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the British request was already being reviewed and encouraged Britain and other nations to accept more detainees.
"This request is for five," he told reporters.
"If there is a desire for the UK government to look at more than five, of course we would entertain that, just as we would with any other country making a request."
Proponents of closing Guantanamo Bay offered similar sentiments.
"The UK's decision to accept its legal residents is an important step forward," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Since 2002, the United States has transferred about 400 detainees from Guantanamo to more than two dozen countries.
In some cases, however, the US has not been able to transfer the prisoners to their home countries because it hasn't been able to secure the assurances required by American law that they would not be mistreated.
The State Department has struggled to find third countries willing to accept Guantanamo prisoners and able to provide the legally required assurances.
Yesterday's request by Brown's government contrasts with Tony Blair's refusal for years to intervene in many Guantanamo cases. Brown has been trying to distance himself from Blair, particularly in regard to his predecessor's actions in Iraq.
Blair's government chose only to secure the release of nine British citizens and one resident who had provided help to British intelligence services.
It refused to intervene in the plight of other British residents, saying as recently as March that it could not help people who were not citizens.
The men -- Saudi Shaker Aamer, Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, Libyan-born Omar Deghayes, Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed, and Algerian Abdennour Sameur -- had all been granted refugee status, indefinite leave, or exceptional leave to remain in Britain before they were detained, the statement said.