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Afghanistan frees 65 inmates from Parwan prison over strong U.S. objections

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan released 65 accused militants from a former U.S. prison on Thursday despite protests from the American military, which says the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces. 

The release had been ordered by President Hamid Karzai several weeks ago, after his government took over the prison from U.S. troops.

Karzai said on Thursday the release of detainees was "of no concern" to the United States, threatening to inflame already strained ties.

"It is of no concern to the U.S., and I hope the U.S. will stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority," Karzai said at a press conference in the Turkish capital Ankara, after a meeting with President Abdullah Gul and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The decision had prompted angry denunciations from Washington and strained relations between the two countries ahead of the year-end withdrawal of most international combat troops. U.S. forces in Afghanistan say the men have the blood of international and Afghan soldiers on their hands. 

The prisoners were freed just after 9 a.m. from the Parwan Detention Facility near Bagram Air Field, about 28 miles north of Kabul, prison chief Gen. Faroq Barekzai told CBS News.

Maj. Nimatullah Khaki, a prison spokesperson, says they boarded a bus to leave the facility, laughing and smiling.

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the release "deeply regrettable."

"Releasing these individuals is contrary to Afghanistan’s commitment in our 2012 Memorandum of Understanding to take all necessary steps to ensure that detainees do not pose a continuing threat to Afghanistan, the international community or the United States," the statement said.  "The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision. We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror, and to immediately bring to justice any who do so." 

The U.S. military in Afghanistan released a separate statement, saying the "release of these dangerous individuals poses a threat to U.S., Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the Afghan population."

"Insurgents in the group released today have killed Coalition and Afghan Forces. They have killed Afghan men, women and children," read the statement. "More than two dozen of the individuals released were linked to the production or emplacement of improvised explosive devices, the number one killer of Afghan civilians." 

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 The detainees' release has been in the works for weeks, and comes as Karzai's government has taken an increasingly hostile tone toward the U.S. ahead of the withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.

Karzai has thus far refused to sign a bilateral security pact with the U.S. government outlining the role of the American military in the country post-2014.

The U.S. has argued for the detainees to face trial in Afghan courts - citing strong evidence against them, from DNA linking them to roadside bombs to explosive residue on their clothing - but Kabul has cited insufficient proof to hold them. 

Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory" where innocent Afghans are tortured into hating their country.

Among those who were expected to walk free Thursday morning were Mohammad Wali, who the U.S. military says is a suspected Taliban explosives expert who allegedly placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and international forces. The military said Wali had been biometrically linked to two roadside explosions and had a latent fingerprint match on another improvised explosive device, as well as testing positive for explosives residue. 

Others in the group include Nek Mohammad - who the U.S. says was captured with extensive weapons, and a man identified as Ehsanullah, who is claimed to have been biometrically matched to a roadside bomb and who tested positive for explosives residue. 

The U.S. military had formally disputed the prisoners' release, but an Afghan review board had effectively overruled those challenges. 

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