U.S. Naval base in Cuba prepares to house hundreds of al-Qaida prisoners

Thursday, January 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba (AP) _ On a dusty wind-swept hillside, a U.S. base that housed migrants who risked their lives for the American dream is being readied for al-Qaida fighters whose mission was to destroy the United States.

``Our job is to take these terrorists out of the fight by locking them up,'' said Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, commander of Joint Task Force 160 at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base on Cuba's eastern tip.

Lehnert told reporters who toured the base Wednesday that the temporary detention area, called Camp X-Ray, has room for 100 prisoners and soon could house 220. A more permanent site, now under construction, is expected to house up to 2,000 detainees.

In all, U.S. forces are holding 364 prisoners in Afghanistan, officials say. It was unclear how many would be brought to Guantanamo, though the first are expected to arrive by week's end.

Camp X-Ray, surrounded by circles of fence and barbed wire, lies within the 45-square-mile base. About 660 soldiers have been sent to reinforce the base and more are on the way. The base's normal population is 2,700, three quarters of which are civilians. On Wednesday, soldiers used bulldozers to build new roads in the detention area.

Prisoners will be isolated in individual, open-air fenced cells with metal roofs. They will sleep on mats under halogen floodlights.

``If it rains, there's a possibility they could get wet,'' said Col. Terry Carrico, head of security for the camp. He and other commanders insisted prisoners will be treated humanely, saying the Red Cross and other organizations will monitor their treatment.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the government would decide the detainees' legal status case by case.

``They will be provided with food and appropriate medical care,'' he said. ``And I think it's safe to say that no matter where they are, Guantanamo or anywhere else, their conditions will be much better than the conditions under which they existed when they lived in Afghanistan.''

Soldiers were drilled in prison techniques Wednesday. They practiced handcuffing and escorting inmates and were instructed on ways to maintain a professional detachment from their expected prisoners, who include members of the al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taliban, the ousted Afghan militia that sheltered Osama bin Laden.

``It'll be a challenge for some of the younger soldiers,'' said Staff Sgt. Scott Bolman, ``because they don't have the experience to set themselves aside from their emotions and do their job.''

Escape is not as great a concern as the possibility that the prisoners might attack their jailers; some of the fundamentalist Islamic fighters believe they can reach paradise if they die killing Americans.

Bolman, a military police officer from Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, says minimal force is the wisest policy.

``Look, as long as you do what you do without escalating it yourself, chances are you won't have too much of a problem,'' he said.

Guantanamo's physical location lends even more security.

``The base is surrounded by 17.4 miles of fence line,'' said base commander Capt. Robert Buehn, not to mention a corresponding Cuban fence line and minefield, cactuses and salt flats.

Still, Buehn says officials have tried to reassure anxious civilians with town meetings at the sprawling base. Many have asked whether the military had backup plans to evacuate Guantanamo in case of a prison break or other security breach.

The Cuban government has said it has no opinion of U.S. plans to hold Afghan war detainees at the base. While Cuba has opposed U.S. military action in Afghanistan, it condemned the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States and said it supports efforts to eliminate international terrorism.

The Guantanamo base is one of America's oldest overseas outposts. The U.S. military first seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. President Theodore Roosevelt leased the land from Cuba in 1903, and President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the base expanded in 1939.

Since Fidel Castro's 1959 communist revolution, the U.S. military presence on Cuban soil has been a source of irritation for Havana.

Under the first lease, the United States agreed to pay Cuba 2,000 gold coins a year, now valued at $4,085. Washington continues to pay that amount every year. Castro's government refuses to cash the checks.