WASHINGTON - The lone US soldier held captive in Afghanistan was freed Saturday in exchange for five senior Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay, in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.
US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl - who was captured nearly five years ago - was in "good" condition after Taliban fighters handed him over to US special operations forces at an undisclosed location in eastern Afghanistan, defence officials said.
The five Guantanamo Bay detainees were in turn transferred to Qatar, where their movements and activities will be restricted, a US official said.
"Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays, and the simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted," President Barack Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by the soldier's parents Bob and Jani.
"But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten." Obama thanked Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and the government in Kabul for helping to bring home the 28-year-old Bergdahl.
"The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security," Obama said, referring to the conditions under which the Taliban figures - all seen as influential - were transferred.
Previous attempts to free Bergdahl through a swap with the Taliban had failed. But this time, Qatar was able to secure an agreement.
Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province near the Pakistan border. The Taliban militants later said they had captured him.
At one time, he was believed to have been held by members of the Haqqani network, the militant outfit that is allied with the Taliban and has ties to Al-Qaeda.
Bergdahl's release comes as the United States prepares to scale back its presence in Afghanistan, 13 years into America's longest war.
A sign of 'goodwill'
Bergdahl's parents said they were "joyful and relieved" to hear that their son was a free man.
"We will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers," Jani Bergdahl said at the White House.
Her husband Bob said a few words in Pashto, then said in Arabic: "In the name of God the most kind and compassionate." He also asked reporters to grant the family space as they undertake the "considerable task" of Bergdahl's recovery.
Pentagon officials said Bergdahl was brought to the Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he received medical treatment.
From there, he will fly to the US military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany before reuniting with his family in the United States.
Prisoner swap criticism
Opposition Republicans quickly criticised Obama for the swap.
Influential Senator John McCain welcomed Bergdahl's release, but demanded to know what steps were being taken to "ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to fight against the United States and our partners".
He described the five men being released as "hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands".