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 was ordered by President Hamid Karzai several weeks ago, after his government took over the prison from U.S. troops.
The decision 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 some of the men are responsible for killing or wounding dozens of international and Afghan soldiers.
The prisoners were freed just after 9 a.m. from the Parwan Detention Facility near Bagram Air Field, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Kabul, according to prison spokesman Maj. Nimatullah Khaki.
They boarded a bus to leave the facility, laughing and smiling, he said.
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, too, has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory" where innocent Afghans are tortured into hating their country.
The U.S. military late Wednesday night issued a strongly worded statement condemning the imminent release, which it said would include detainees directly linked to attacks that have killed or wounded 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zair Azimi confirmed the release Thursday but would not comment on U.S concerns.
"Our responsibility is the protection of the prisoners. That is all," Azimi said by telephone.
Among those who were expected to walk free Thursday morning was 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. He had also tested 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.
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.