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Hailey’s ‘Bowe is Back’ celebration canceled amid mounting debate

The “Bowe is Back” celebration scheduled in Hailey for June 28 has been canceled, after organizers reported that they were getting signs that a huge influx of people either supporting or opposing the event would swamp the town, as national debate builds about the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity in exchange for the release of five Taliban officials held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. “In the interest of public safety, the event will be canceled,” organizers said a new release; the Idaho Statesman has the full release posted online here. “Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become.”

Meanwhile, the Taliban released a video today of Bergdahl’s handover to Americans; some Wood River Valley businesses reported cancellations from prospective visitors angry over the move; U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Bergdahl’s parents today and wished them well in a 10-minute conversation; and debate raged in Congress over the trade; click below for the latest report from the Associated Press.


Bergdahl's hometown cancels celebration of release

By BRIAN SKOLOFF, Associated Press

HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — The small Idaho hometown of released captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has canceled plans for a celebration later this month, citing security concerns after it was inundated with negative emails and angry phone calls.

Organizers released a statement Wednesday saying that because of national media attention on Bergdahl's story, they expect a significant increase in the number of people planning to attend the event — some to protest, and others to support the Bergdahl family. The organizers said that the town, with just 8,000 people, doesn't have the infrastructure to support a big event.

However, large events are not uncommon in the region. In nearby Ketchum, just 12 miles to the north, about 32,000 people attend the town's Wagon Days celebration each year.

Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said the event has been misrepresented in the national media, leading people to think it's some sort of hero's welcome.

“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention we don't know what to expect,” Gunter said.

The town has had an event called “Bring Bowe Back” for several years. That commemoration of his capture was scheduled for June 28, but when news of Bergdahl's release broke, organizers quickly announced it would be a welcome home party instead.

Bergdahl, 28, had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States.

Questions remain about the events that led to his capture, with some critics calling Bergdahl a deserter.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said that she's received dozens of hateful emails and phone calls over the past few days, starting after she was quoted in news stories saying the town was jubilant that Bergdahl had been released. The Chamber of Commerce has also received dozens of emails and calls from detractors, many lambasting the town, Drussel and the chamber for supporting Bergdahl, calling him un-American and a traitor.

Drussel said she hasn't yet received any direct threats, but with all the vitriol, she worried the town wouldn't have enough security.

“It's upsetting because this is where people live in peace and harmony,” she said. “The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful.”

Drussel also said that the event had never been planned to be a “hero's welcome,” but more of a welcome home ceremony as he reunites with this family.

She was saddened by all the hateful messages, saying, “He and his family will never know a normal life.”

Associated Press writer Rebecca Boone contributed to this story from Boise, Idaho.

Taliban video shows handover of US soldier 
By RAHIM FAIEZ and KEN DILANIAN, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As a thin, tense-looking Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. forces, one of his Taliban captors leaned in and warned him: “Don't come back to Afghanistan. You won't make it out alive next time.”

Then, the American soldier, wearing traditional loose-fitting Afghan trousers and a long tunic, was led away to a U.S. military helicopter, where he was patted down for explosives or other weapons before climbing aboard.

The weekend handover in the dusty desert was documented in a 17-minute video emailed to news organizations Wednesday by the Taliban, which touted the exchange of Bergdahl for five Guantanamo detainees as a victory, while debate raged in the U.S. over the deal and whether the 28-year-old from Hailey, Idaho, should be punished as a deserter.

Bergdahl's hometown on Wednesday canceled plans for a welcome-home celebration later this month, citing concerns over its ability to handle the large crowds — both for and against the soldier — that were expected. The town of 8,000 has been swamped with critical emails and phone calls over Bergdahl.

Some Americans have questioned whether he deserves a hero's welcome, since he was captured after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009. U.S. lawmakers and others have also complained that Congress should have been consulted about the prisoner exchange, that the deal will embolden the Taliban to snatch more American soldiers, and that the released Afghans will filter back to the battlefield.

In Washington, Rob Williams, the U.S. national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate intelligence committee Tuesday that four of the men are expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was classified.

Under the terms of the exchange, the five Taliban detainees will have to stay for a year in Qatar. There, they will be free to communicate with their comrades in Afghanistan by courier, one of the congressional officials said.

The five include the former Taliban interior minister, who was described in a U.S. case file leaked by WikiLeaks as having had close ties to Osama bin Laden; the Taliban's former deputy chief of intelligence; and a former member of a joint Taliban-al-Qaida cell.

The video of Bergdahl after five years in captivity shows a well-choreographed release, with the American sitting in a silver pickup truck while more than a dozen Taliban fighters with machine guns and faces largely covered by scarves stand guard nearby and on a rocky hill overlooking the site.

Bergdahl, his head shaved, blinks frequently and looks tense as he peers out of the truck. At one point, he wipes his eye as if to get rid of some dust.

A Black Hawk helicopter lands, kicking up a cloud of dust. Two Taliban fighters, one carrying a white flag of truce tied to a long, crooked stick, lead Bergdahl, now wearing a gray shawl and carrying a plastic bag, halfway toward the chopper.

Three apparent members of U.S. special operations forces approach the group, shake hands with the two Taliban fighters and take Bergdahl toward the helicopter.

One of the three men pats down Bergdahl, while another takes the plastic bag from him and drops it on the ground. Then they all climb into the helicopter.

According to a voiceover on the video, the handover took place around 4 p.m. Saturday in rugged Khost province, near the Pakistani border.

As the helicopter approaches, one of the Taliban men is heard warning Bergdahl not to come back. “You won't make it out alive next time,” the man says in Pashto as some of the other fighters are heard laughing.

As if to underscore the point, similar words appear on the video in broken English: “Don come back to afghanistan.”

Back in the U.S., Sue Martin, a friend of the Bergdahl family and owner of Zaney's Coffee Shop in Hailey, said Bergdahl's appearance in the video shocked her. She said he looked frail, tired and damaged.

“That's not the Bowe who left here and lived here,” Martin said.

Bergdahl was reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany.

A Taliban statement, also distributed to the media, quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement for the movement.

President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a “sacred” obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.

On Capitol Hill, Obama's goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba faced re-energized opposition from Republicans and increased questioning from fellow Democrats in reaction to the trade.

Obama appeared to be making headway last month when a Senate panel approved greater authority for him to transfer suspected terrorists to the U.S.

But the Bergdahl trade has driven a new wedge between the president and lawmakers of both parties who accuse the Obama administration of breaking the law by not giving Congress 30 days' notice.

Hoping to ease mounting criticism, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies planned a private briefing with senators Wednesday evening.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades have complained that U.S. soldiers died during the search for him after he walked away from his base. The military has not confirmed such a link.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the Army will review the case, and he cautioned against drawing conclusions until then.

“It's not in the interests of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl's family … to presume anything. We don't do that in the United States. We rely on facts,” he said at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.

Lee Ann Ferris, a neighbor of the Bergdahls in Hailey, said the town is trying not to pay attention to the criticism of the soldier and the talk about how he fell into Taliban hands.

“It's like a modern-day lynching. He hasn't even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what,” she said.

___

Dilanian reported in Washington. Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor in Brussels, Donna Cassata and Bradley Klapper in Washington, Brian Skoloff in Hailey, Idaho, and Kim Gamel in Cairo contributed to this report.


  

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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