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Freed US soldier's hometown cancels rally amid furore

© Photo: AFP

Video by Lorna SHADDICK

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-06-05

Newly freed US soldier Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown cancelled a rally on Wednesday to celebrate his release from Taliban captivity, following the virulent backlash over allegations that he was a deserter.

In calling off the June 28 event, the officials cited concerns that they lacked the resources to safely manage the thousands of supporters and protesters who were expected to converge on the small mountain community of 8,000 residents.

The decision came as authorities suffered mounting pressure to cancel the rally in the face of rising anger, expressed in a torrent of emails and phone calls directed at city officials and businesses, over claims by Bergdahl’s onetime army comrades that he had deliberately abandoned his post in Afghanistan.

Some have asserted that the search for Bergdahl after he went missing under murky circumstances on June 30, 2009, may have cost the lives of up to six fellow soldiers.

When news of his release broke on Saturday the south-western Idaho town near the upscale ski resort of Sun Valley erupted in elation.

But the festive mood has since been tempered by sharp criticism from some former members of his combat unit that he was unfairly being hailed as a hero.

Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said he received a phone call from a fellow police chief in Tennessee asking him, “What’s wrong with you people?” When the caller was asked what he meant, Gunter recounted, the man angrily replied: “What the hell’s your problem for supporting this deserter?”

Stefanie O’Neill, an organiser of the welcome-home rally, had insisted as late as Tuesday that it would go on as planned. But as recriminations grew on Wednesday, O’Neill and her mother, Debbie, a co-organiser of the event, paid a visit to the Army sergeant’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, to ask whether they wanted the celebration to proceed.

A short time later the city announced that the rally, originally planned before his release as a show of solidarity for Bergdahl around the anniversary of his disappearance, was being cancelled.

Angry phone calls

“The president of the local chamber of commerce [Jane Drussel] said she’s very upset by the dozens of angry phone calls and emails about the alleged desertion by Sergeant Bergdahl,” FRANCE 24’s Washington DC correspondent Lorna Shaddick reported. “Organisers said that due to the storm of media coverage here they were expecting a huge number of people to attend, which they certainly did not have the security to support.”

A statement by the town’s authorities said that organisers expected a dramatic increase in attendance “by people who both want to support or protest against it,” adding that in “the interest of public safety, the event will be cancelled”.

Questions raised about Bergdahl’s capture have stoked a related controversy over the Obama administration’s decision to turn over five Taliban prisoners to the custody of Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl’s return.

Some conservative commentators have also questioned the motives of Bergdahl’s father, who immersed himself in books about Afghanistan after his son became a captive and learnt local dialects of the region on learning that his son may have difficultly understanding English after years in captivity. In response, Republican congressman Allen West went so far as to state that Bergdahl’s father wants to claim the White House for Islam.

Bergdahl was flown over the weekend to a military hospital in Germany for physical and mental evaluation, and it was not clear whether he would return to Idaho by the end of the month.

O’Neill and others have said they were surprised by the intensity of the backlash stirred by allegations of desertion.

They said the young soldier, remembered in town as a somewhat bookish but athletic loner, should be given the benefit of the doubt until he has a chance to speak for himself.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-06-05

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