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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 10:18 GMT
US defends handling of Afghan captives
A US Navy security officer stands guard at Guantanamo Bay
Security at the base has been massively beefed up
The United States has defended its treatment of prisoners airlifted from Afghanistan to a American military base in Cuba, amid international concern about their conditions.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, contradicting the Red Cross, said the 20 Taleban and al-Qaeda captives "will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants".

Prison conditions
Individual cells measuring 1.8 by 2.4 metres
Cells partly open to elements, with walls of chain-link fence
Camp has barbed wire fences, watchtowers and floodlights
Surrounded by marshes and shark-infested sea
But he insisted the prisoners - who are under heavy guard - would be treated humanely and within the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

The prisoners were transferred aboard a cargo plane to a temporary site - called Camp X-ray - at the US Guantanamo Bay military base on Friday.

They will be kept separate, in cells measuring 1.8 by 2.4 metres (six feet by eight feet) with open, chain-link walls, a concrete floor and wooden roof.

The human rights group Amnesty International has voiced concern about the "cages" used for accommodation, saying they would "fall below minimum standards for humane treatment".

Cuban co-operation

Despite years of hostility, the Cuban Government has said it will help the US authorities at Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba map
"We are willing to co-operate with the medical services required as well as with sanitation programmes in the surrounding areas under our control," an official statement said.

Cuba said it differed from the United States on the method but not on the need to "eradicate terrorism".

The prisoners arrived with hands bound and some with shackles on their legs. Some appeared to resist as they got off the plane.

They were dressed in orange jumpsuits, orange caps, white shoes and wore goggles covered with tape.

They also wore surgical masks as some prisoners had tested positive for tuberculosis and at least one prisoner was sedated.

The International Red Cross (ICRC) says it regards the prisoners as POWs with full rights under the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC says it plans to start visiting the prisoners early next week to ensure they are being treated humanely.

Amnesty International said that "all those in US custody following the military operations in Afghanistan must be treated humanely, with full respect for international standards".

Military tribunals

None of the prisoners has yet been charged but some could face military courts authorised by President George Bush following the 11 September attacks.

A US watch tower at Guantanamo Bay
The camp is being expanded to house hundreds more prisoners

A new prison is being built at Guantanamo Bay to hold up to 2,000 prisoners behind razor wire.

Experts say the use of Guantanamo is carefully calculated - it is technically Cuban territory, leased to the US military - and if the detainees are never brought to American soil, they can have no recourse to appeals under US federal law.

The landing was witnessed by about two dozen journalists, but the US military enforced strict media controls - banning all photographs and recordings of the transfer.

The detainees, who arrived from Kandahar, were described by task force commander Marine Brigadier General Michael Lehnert as the "worst elements" of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The extraordinary security measures have been put in place amid fears of a prisoner uprising such as happened at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan.

ICRC delegates have so far visited nearly 5,000 prisoners in about 40 facilities in Afghanistan, and the humanitarian organisation says it will expect the same free access to prisoners in Cuba.

The BBC's Helen Simms
"The captives face intense interrogation"
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
"One person was sedated for the trip"
Human Rights Watch's Jamie Fellner
"Most members of the Taleban should qualify as prisoners of war"
See also:

09 Jan 02 | South Asia
US seeks access to Taleban ministers
28 Dec 01 | Americas
Destination Guantanamo Bay
04 Jan 02 | Americas
Castro 'does not oppose' US prison
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Al-Qaeda to struggle on
12 Jan 02 | South Asia
Harsh conditions for Afghan prisoners
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