AFGHANISTAN -

Afghanistan released 65 accused militants from a former US prison on Thursday morning despite protests from the American military, which says the men are Taliban fighters and are likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.

The release had been ordered by President Hamid Karzai several weeks ago, after his government took over the prison from US troops.

Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi confirmed the news.

"The Afghan Army Military Police, which is responsible for security of Bagram prisoners, reported that 65 Bagram prisoners, whose release orders were given after going through legal procedure, have been released," he said.

The move further strains relations between Washington and Karzai, whose increasingly anti-American rhetoric and refusal to sign a long-negotiated bilateral security deal has increased uncertainty ahead of the year-end withdrawal of most international combat troops.

The prisoners were freed just after 9am local time  from the Parwan Detention Facility near Bagram Air Field, about 28 miles north of Kabul, according to prison spokesman Major Nimatullah Khaki.

He also said the release prisoners boarded a bus to leave the facility, laughing and smiling.

The US 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 US military late on 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 US or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.