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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 20:41 GMT
US flies suspects to Cuba base
A US soldier stands guard at the Guantanamo Bay prison
The prison has been specially constructed at the Cuba base
A first group of al-Qaeda and Taleban prisoners being held by US forces has been flown out of Afghanistan on route to a US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

There are among these prisoners people who are perfectly willing to kill themselves and kill other people

Donald Rumsfeld
US Defence Secretary
About 20 detainees from among the more than 350 currently in US custody were on the first flight, which left Kandahar airbase on Thursday.

Shortly after the aircraft departed, the base came under small arms fire, which US marines were investigating.

The prisoners, who had all been captured during the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, were dressed in orange overalls, chained and with clean-shaven faces. CNN television showed pictures of the captives shuffling across the tarmac towards the C-17 cargo planes.

They include suspected members of Osama Bin Laden's terrorist al-Qaeda network, as well as fighters from the Taleban, ousted from power in December.

The US military is expected to use unprecedented security on the flight, although the Pentagon has declined to comment on reports that the prisoners will be chained to their seats, hooded and sedated during the journey to Guantanamo's newly constructed jails.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a news conference that guards "have been authorised and instructed to use appropriate restraints".

"There are among these prisoners people who are perfectly willing to kill themselves and kill other people."

The plane may also be escorted by jet fighters at least some of the way.

The flight is expected to take 20 hours, with a single scheduled stop at an undisclosed location.

Life inside

The military post at Guantanamo Bay, which the US rents from Cuba for just $4,000 per year, is being fitted out with a prison designed to hold up to 2,000 prisoners.

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

The US presence on the island has been a constant bone of contention with the Communist regime since the Cuban revolution in 1959, but President Fidel Castro has not voiced particular objections to the proposed housing of al-Qaeda prisoners there.

US officials said the base is a prime location for a security facility, surrounded by mangrove swamps, salt marshes and shark-infested seas.

Prisoners will wear jump suits. They will be kept apart most of the time, although they will be allowed out of their cells in small groups for meals, showers and some recreation.

They will be allowed to pray according to their faith.

US officials say they are holding 368 prisoners - 306 at a base in Kandahar, 38 in Bagram, outside the capital Kabul, 16 at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, and eight aboard the Navy ship USS Bagram.

Captured Taleban fighters in the northern town of Taloqan
The US has 368 prisoners of war
The US is continuing to try to track down the Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters who have so far eluded capture. On Thursday, 150 ground troops were reported to be scouring an area in southern Afghanistan, while their colleagues launched air strikes on suspected hideouts.

It appears that not all of those captured may be sent to Cuba.

It also remains unclear what form of justice they will face.

Some members of the US Government are keen to put them before military tribunals - possibly outside the US - but there have been calls for the prisoners to be put through a more transparent process, where the trial would be subject to public scrutiny.

The less senior members of al-Qaeda and the Taleban may simply face further interrogation before being sent back to their home countries for judicial proceedings there.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur in Washington
"The first 20 will be held in temporary cage-like cells"
Major Brad Lowell of US Central Command, Tampa
"We understand these are dangerous individuals"
Former US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger
"They have demonstrated they are still capable of great violence"
See also:

10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Harsh conditions await 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
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