WASHINGTON - The United States said it has sent 12 more Guantanamo detainees home to Afghanistan, Yemen and a breakaway region of Somalia -- volatile nations where Al-Qaeda havens have fueled concern over such repatriations.
The transfers bring the total number of detainees at the "war on terror" prison to below 200, just days after the US government announced it will move many other inmates to a maximum-security prison in the state of Illinois.
Six Yemenis, four Afghans and two Somalis were transferred to their homelands over the weekend, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a statement.
"These transfers were carried out under individual arrangements between the United States and relevant foreign authorities to ensure the transfers took place under appropriate security measures," it said.
"Consultations with foreign authorities regarding these individuals will continue."
Yemen's embassy in Washington applauded the release of the Yemeni inmates and vowed to continue close consultations with President Barack Obama's administration.
"The Embassy of the Republic of Yemen hails the release and transfer of six of its citizens from Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility," said spokesman Mohammed Albasha in a statement.
"Yemen will continue its diplomatic dialogue with the United States government to repatriate the remaining Yemeni detainees," it added.
"President Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility is an astute reflection of the prudent national security and foreign policy position of the US administration."
US media reported Friday that a group of Yemenis held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was set to be repatriated, perhaps paving the way for the removal of one of the biggest obstacles in shutting down the prison.
Close to half of Guantanamo's 198 remaining detainees are from Yemen, and the latest transfers are seen as a key test of the Sanaa government's commitment to keeping militants in check and fighting Al-Qaeda.
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US officials fear the country lacks the security resources to ensure that Guantanamo returnees will not join militant groups active there.
According to Yemen's defense ministry, over the past week Yemeni security forces killed 28 Al-Qaeda militants and captured another 30 in an offensive against the terror network.
There have been months of high-level meetings between senior US and Yemeni government officials, including a visit to Sanaa by deputy CIA director Stephen Kappes, The Washington Post reported.
If the transfer goes well, US officials are prepared to repatriate more Guantanamo Yemenis and 34 of those still at the camp have been cleared for release, according to the Post.
One of those already allowed back to Yemen was Osama bin Laden's former driver Salim Hamdan, who had been held at Guantanamo for seven years. He was sent to Yemen in December 2008 and released in mid-January.
The DOJ said the two transferred Somalis were repatriated to the autonomous region of Somaliland.
In October the leader of the breakaway self-declared state called for war against Shebab rebels, a hardline Al-Qaeda-inspired militia blamed for deadly suicide attacks in 2008.
The Shebab, who control southern Somalia, have waged relentless battles against Somalia's transitional government in the capital Mogadishu.
Obama acknowledged in November that he would miss the self-imposed January deadline to close down the Guantanamo prison.
US officials said Tuesday that a batch of Guantanamo detainees will be transferred to a maximum-security prison in Illinois.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the administration intends to release or extradite 116 Guantanamo detainees to either countries of origin or to third countries willing to accept them.