Soldier's death, Guantanamo detainees rattle Palau

NGARDMAU, Palau (AP) - The war in Afghanistan hit too close to
home for the tiny village of Ngardmau in this remote, close-knit
Pacific nation.

Hundreds throughout Palau, from children to the president,
gathered Tuesday in sweltering heat to mourn Jasper Obakrairur, a
26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant and the first Palauan killed in
Afghanistan. They wept as if he were one of their own.

And in a way, he is. For this archipelago of some 20,000 where
families and acquaintances are deeply intertwined, just one
casualty represents a collective tragedy. The young soldier's death
has shocked Palau's core and left many questioning whether it was
sacrificing too much for the U.S.-led effort.

"I'm always telling our leadership, us Palauans, we are very
few," said Queen Bilung Salii, the country's highest-ranking
female traditional leader. "And here we are sending our kids to
war."

As they bid farewell to their native son, Palauans at the
funeral expressed anxiety over the expected arrival of 13 men
detained as possible terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Their country
leapt into headlines recently after agreeing to President Barack
Obama's request to take the group of Chinese Muslims, known as
Uighurs, after other countries turned Washington down.

The Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), a Turkic people from China's
far western region of Xinjiang, were captured in Afghanistan and
Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year that they were
not "enemy combatants."

Palau's president, Johnson Toribiong, has described the
agreement as a humanitarian gesture, in line with his people's
tradition of welcoming those in need.

Still, the decision does not sit well with Florencia Ebelau, who
watched Obakrairur's state funeral on a TV monitor outside the
Capitol rotunda. Flags flew at half-staff, and Toribiong declared
Tuesday a national day of mourning.

The proceedings were followed by a Palauan service in
Obakrairur's village in Ngardmau, on the western coast of the
biggest island.

Ebelau, 64, worries that the Uighurs will threaten the
tranquility and safety of Palau.

"It's good to be nice to other people, but only as much as you
can afford to," said Ebelau, whose women's group includes one of
the fallen soldier's relatives. "I don't mean to be a nasty
person, but we cannot afford that kind of thing."

When asked about the president's possible motives, she, along
with many others, said, "Because the U.S. asked us to."

Fermin Meriang, editor of the local Island Times newspaper, has
been a vocal critic of the Uighur issue in his publication. The
public should have been consulted before a final decision, he said.

"Otherwise, you get what's happening right now - a backlash,"
he said.

Palau is one of the world's smallest countries, totaling 190
square miles (490 square kilometers) of lush tropical landscapes.
Its economy depends heavily on tourism and foreign aid, mainly from
Washington.

Toribiong has repeatedly denied that his country stands to
benefit financially in exchange for accepting the Uighurs. But the
arrangement coincides with the start of talks to review the
agreement that governs Palau's relationship with the U.S.

Under the Compact of Free Association, U.S. aid to Palau from
1995 to 2009 is expected to exceed $852 million, according to a
report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It
includes direct funding as well as access to U.S. postal, aviation
and weather services.

The compact also allows Palauans to serve in the U.S. armed
forces.

The military does not release specific numbers on how many
Palauans are currently serving, but it has been a prominent option
for young men seeking career, educational and travel opportunities
unavailable at home.

Toribiong estimates that about 30 to 40 Palauans join the U.S.
armed forces every year. Locals regularly claim that per capita,
Palau sends more people to the military than the U.S.

Obakrairur was killed by a roadside bomb on June 1 in Nerkh,
Afghanistan. Three other Palauans have been killed while serving in
Iraq.

"In the past, a lot of Palauans joined the military, but
nothing like this had ever happened," said Vameline Singeo, who
attended elementary school with Obakrairur. "Before it was more of
a positive thing. Now that there have been deaths, people are more
reserved in sending their kids."

Obakrairur is his family's only son. He was posthumously awarded
a bronze star and purple heart Tuesday.


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