The United States on Monday appointed a lawyer as its new pointman for the tough task of trying to close down the notorious Guantanamo Bay military jail in southern Cuba.
Cliff Sloan, said to be a long-time friend of US Secretary of State John Kerry, will lead the effort which has been given new impetus since President Barack Obama last month renewed his pledge to shutter the prison.
His appointment shows the US "commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Keeping Guantanamo open was "not efficient, effective or in the interests of our national security," she told reporters.
In one of his first acts in office in January 2009, Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge and signed an order to close the prison within a year.
But after five years and already into his second term, 166 inmates remain behind bars at the US military prison in southern Cuba -- even though more than half have been cleared for release and face no charges in the United States.
Moves to close the jail have hit numerous obstacles with the US refusing to send some inmates back to countries where they face jail or execution, and third countries being unwilling to step forward to host them.
Sloan has "a wealth of experience as an accomplished litigator and pragmatic problem-solver, a skill set that will prove valuable as he serves as the lead negotiator for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees abroad," Psaki said.
The news amid a hunger strike sweeping the jail, and as some of the relatives of 84 Yemenis being held there protested outside the US embassy in Sanaa calling for the men to be freed.
Out of the group, 56 Yemenis have been cleared for release. Obama has now lifted a moratorium on sending prisoners back to the Gulf state, imposed after a Nigerian man trained in Yemen tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a flight to Detroit in the United States on Christmas Day 2009.
Obama also urged the Pentagon to designate a site on US soil to hold military tribunals for those terror suspects now at Guantanamo Bay, and said Congress must now drop efforts to thwart his closure plans.
But he did not offer a solution for inmates deemed too dangerous for release but who cannot be tried because evidence against them was obtained through coercion and may not be admissible in court.
As of June 12, almost two-thirds -- 104 of the 166 detainees at the prison camp -- were on hunger strike, and 43 were being force-fed.
Civil rights organization the ACLU welcomed Sloan's appointment, as putting in place "one of the last pieces of the puzzle for getting the prison closed."
"With more than half of the detainees already cleared for transfer or release, and dozens more being held without ever being charged or tried, it's time to start sending these men home," added Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office.