Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has issued a rare public statement hailing the exchange of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for a Taliban-held US soldier as a “big victory”.
Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed to US forces in Afghanistan on Saturday.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has defended the exchange amid criticism Congress was not given 30 days’ notice before the detainees were released.
He said the US had to act quickly to save the soldier’s life.
Mullah Omar, who has made no public appearances or speeches since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001 when US-led forces toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in the US, said: “I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation.”
The Afghan government, which was not informed of the deal until after the exchange had taken place, has condemned it as a breach of international law.
Sgt Bergdahl, who is said to be in good condition and has been flown to Germany for more treatment, was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The five senior Afghan detainees are thought to be the most senior Afghans held at the US detention facility in Cuba, having been captured during America’s military campaign in 2001.
Republican opponents have criticised the Pentagon for not giving Congress the required 30-day notification before releasing the five.
But Mr Hagel, who reportedly met some of the special forces team involved in the operation on a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, said the military believed the soldier was in danger, and had to act quickly “essentially to save his life”.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice told US television there had been extensive consultations with Congress in the past about getting Sgt Bergdahl back, and lawmakers knew about the idea of trading detainees.
Mohammad Fazl served as the Taliban’s deputy defence minister during America’s military campaign in 2001. Accused of possible war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Shia Muslims.
Khirullah Khairkhwa was a senior Taliban official serving as interior minister and governor of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city. Alleged to have had direct links to Osama Bin Laden.
Abdul Haq Wasiq was the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence. Said to have been central in forming alliances with other Islamist groups to fight against US and coalition forces.
Mullah Norullah Noori was a senior Taliban military commander and a governor. Also accused of being involved in the mass killings of Shia Muslims.
Mohammad Nabi Omari held multiple Taliban leadership roles, including chief of security. Alleged to have been involved in attacks against US and coalition forces.
While hopeful the prisoner exchange could lead to a breakthrough in negotiations with the Taliban, Mr Hagel said getting Sgt Bergdahl back had been the priority.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was informed of the prisoner-swap “after the fact”, he added.
In a statement, the Afghan ministry of foreign affairs insisted that “handing over prisoners to a third country is a breach of international law”.
It added: “We are strongly opposed to it. We want Qatar and the US government to let the men go free.”
Parents Robert and Jani Bergdahl said they were “joyful and relieved” to hear of their son’s release, adding that he was having trouble speaking English due to his long captivity.
The US president, who was joined at the White House by Sgt Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani, said ”he was never forgotten”
President Obama said on Saturday that he had received security guarantees from Qatar – which mediated the deal and where the five Afghan men have been flown – “that it will put in place measures to protect our national security”.
Under the deal, they will be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.
A video grab image from 2010 showed Sgt Bergdahl in captivity
The soldier, of Hailey, Idaho, was serving with an infantry regiment in Paktika province near the Pakistani border and went missing on 30 June 2009, months after being deployed to Afghanistan.
The circumstances of his capture remain unclear, with speculation he may have walked away from his base out of disillusionment with the US campaign.
US officials say any decision over possible desertion charges will be made by the army, but there is a feeling the soldier has suffered enough.
Throughout his captivity, the soldier’s hometown had continued to remember him with special events and yellow ribbons tied to trees