The European Union will need "weeks or months" before it can sort out the legal tangles involved in hosting some inmates due to be released from the Guantanamo prison, according to officials in Brussels.
Europe says it needs time before accepting former detainees
"Due to the legal situation in different (EU) countries, we can't give a quick answer ... It is not a question which can be solved in weeks or months," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the bloc's rotating presidency.
While the new administration of US President Barack Obama has not yet officially asked European governments to host any of the 60 Guantanamo inmates eligible for release, a list of possible candidates has already begun circulating in European capitals.
But the lack of a quick response from the EU is likely to be ill-received in Washington.
Europeans want to get off on a good foot with Obama
Analysts had warned ahead of Monday's talks that the EU's reaction on Guantanamo represented the first real test of Europe's will to start relations with the Obama administration on a positive note.
As Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said, "we need to shake hands with the US: it's a new, fresh start."
But ministers later insisted that legal complications made it impossible for them to commit themselves quickly.
"We found during our discussions that the legal situations are different in different (EU) states," Schwarzenberg said.
President Barack Obama signs an executive order closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay
He said foreign ministers would first ask for a reasoned opinion from their justice and interior ministers. "Then we will probably have another meeting," he said.
So far, Portugal is the only EU member state to have clearly stated its intention of taking in former detainees who would face persecution and abuse if sent to their countries of origin in the Middle East.
The foreign ministers of Germany and France both said in Brussels that they would consider hosting the men in orange jumpsuits only on a "case-by-case" basis, with France's Bernard Kouchner insisting that he would not accept any "impositions" from Washington.
And Britain, which has already taken in 12 former detainees, has said it will not take in more.
Britain "feels it has already made a significant contribution but that we are keen to offer our experience on the repatriation of these people to other European countries who are ready to play their part," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said ahead of the talks.
The Guantanamo prison outraged many Europeans
The EU has long called for the closure of the Guantanamo detention center and welcomed the decision by Obama to prepare the jail's closure soon after assuming office.
But securing a common European position on what to do next would likely take a long period of complex legal discussions, judging from the outcome of Monday's talks.
There was further controversy when ministers removed the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) from their list of terrorist organizations on Monday, despite the opposition of France and public protests in Tehran.
The widely expected move followed a ruling by the European Court in Luxembourg, which in December said the EU was wrong to keep the PMOI's assets frozen after it was taken off a British list of terrorist organizations.
"What we are doing today is abiding by the resolution of the European Court. There's nothing we can do about that resolution," EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said.
However, in light of objections from France, Czech officials said the EU might reconsider its decision "if new evidence" against the PMOI were to emerge.
Founded in 1965, the PMOI operated a military wing in its early years, but says it renounced violence in June 2001 and now advocates the political overthrow of Iran's current government.