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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 02:51 GMT
Afghan captives start Cuba detention
A US Navy security officer stands guard at Guantanamo Bay
Security at the base has been massively beefed up
The first group of 20 Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners airlifted from Afghanistan are now in a detention camp at a United States military base at Guantanamo in Cuba.

They will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants

Donald Rumsfeld
But the airlift, carried out in conditions of unprecedented security, has already raised some concerns about the way they are to be treated.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described them as "unlawful combatants" with no rights under the Geneva Conventions, but said they would be treated in a manner "reasonably consistent" with the conventions.

We will ask to be able to visit the whole premises in order to have a real good view on the whole facility and how they're set up

ICRC spokeswoman Anotella Notari
Meanwhile, the Red Cross says it regards the prisoners as POWs with full rights, and Amnesty International has already expressed some concern about the way they were brought to Cuba.

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

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.

Media restrictions

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

Cuba map

The detainees, who arrived from Kandahar on board a US military transport plane on Friday, were described by task force commander Marine Brigadier General Michael Lehnert as the "worst elements" of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The prisoners were escorted from the aircraft onto buses to be taken to their new quarters, their 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 facemasks.

At their detention camp, known as Camp X-ray, the prisoners will be isolated in temporary, individual cells with walls of chain-link fence and metal roofs, where they will sleep on mats under halogen floodlights.

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

Rights abuses

Human rights groups have already expressed concern about treatment of the prisoners. Amnesty International says it has heard reports the men were chained to their seats, hooded and sedated during the 8,000-mile flight.

A US watch tower at Guantanamo Bay
Razor wire and shark infested seas ring the base
"All those in US custody following the military operations in Afghanistan must be treated humanely, with full respect for international standards," an Amnesty statement said.

And the International Red Cross (ICRC) said it regards the men - thought to number about 20 out of more than 350 in US custody - as prisoners of war who therefore have all the rights and privileges of POWs under the Geneva Convention.

It is reported that the prisoners had their beards shaved, for reasons of hygiene, prior to the 27-hour journey, a measure the ICRC says might constitute a breach of their human dignity under the convention.

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

Natural defences

Guantanamo Bay
1898 - US Marines land on Cuba during Spanish-American War
1903 - President Roosevelt signs permanent lease for military post
1961 - President Eisenhower insists base remains, despite Castro's revolution
1962 - Battalions of troops arrive during Cuban missile crisis
1990s - Base used to house Cuban and Haitian refugees

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.

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

The location is naturally defended by mangrove swamps, salt marshes and shark-infested seas, while hundreds of extra servicemen have been sent to the base.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Washington
"The United States insists it will treat the suspects humanely"
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"
Pakistan's Lieutenant General Hamid ul Haq
"There should have been a coalition court that could have tried them"
See also:

12 Jan 02 | South Asia
Harsh conditions for Afghan prisoners
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
Kabul troop deadline 'won't be met'
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