The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to US special forces by the Taliban last night, in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.
Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old was in good condition and able to walk.
“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, where he was joined by Sgt Bergdahl’s parents.
“The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
The handover followed indirect negotiations between the US and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between.
Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to a senior defence official travelling with US defence secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Sgt Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the letters “SF?” – asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Then, according to the official, Sgt Bergdahl broke down and cried.
Sgt Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009.
Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to US troops in the war.
The network, which the US State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Sgt Bergdahl was transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main US base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations.
He will be sent to Germany for additional care before eventually returning to the United States.
Sgt Bergdhal is tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Centre where he would be reunited with his family.
Several dozen US special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members.
The commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Sgt Bergdahl.
The US believes Sgt Bergdahl was held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
Sgt Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, had been in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received a call yesterday from Mr Obama informing them that their son had been freed.
As they stood with the president in the Rose Garden hours after their son’s release, Bob Bergdahl, who grew a long, thick beard to honour his son, said Bowe Bergdahl was having trouble speaking English after his rescue.
The elder Bergdahl had worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son’s captors, and delivered him a message in that language.
Switching back to English, he said “the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended”.
The news of Sgt Bergdahl’s release spread quickly in his home town in southern Idaho, and residents immediately began making plans for a welcome-home celebration.
An annual event called “Bring Bowe Back” scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed “Bowe is Back”.
“It is going to be Bowe’s official welcome-home party even if he’s not quite home yet,” organiser Stefanie O’Neill said.
The circumstances surrounding Sgt Bergdahl’s capture remain something of a mystery.
There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or desertion.
Were Sgt Bergdahl to be charged with desertion, the maximum penalty he would face is five years in prison and a dishonourable discharge, if it is proven that he deserted with the intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.
“It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home Sgt Bowe Bergdahl,” said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Officials said the Taliban signalled to the US in November that they were ready to start new talks on the issue of detainees.
After the US received proof that Sgt Bergdahl was still alive, indirect talks began, with Qatar sending messages back and forth between the two parties.
The five Guantanamo detainees departed the base on a US military aircraft yesterday afternoon.
Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from travelling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
Mr Obama and the emir of Qatar spoke last week about the conditions of the release, which have been codified in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.
The administration is legally required to notify Congress in advance about plans to release Guantanamo detainees.
An administration official said politicians were notified only after US officials knew they had Sgt Bergdahl, but before the transfers took place.
Two Republicans said Mr Obama violated US laws when he approved the exchange.
Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said the law required the president to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo.
In response, the White House said that officials considered what they called “unique and exigent circumstances” and decided to go ahead with the transfer in spite of the legal requirement.
The detainees are among the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are:
:: Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence
:: Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001
:: Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and had direct ties to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden
:: Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office in Kabul
:: Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country.