Detainee transfers to Cuba temporarily suspended
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States temporarily has suspended the transfer of Afghan war detainees to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
Sources said that the delay stems from logistical concerns, specifically a lack of space and the need to build additional cells and other facilities. Transfers could resume after those cells are ready.
The construction of 60 more holding cells should be completed by Thursday, sources said. Crews from the U.S. Southern Command are overseeing the construction. Transfers could resume after those cells are ready.
A U.S. Navy mobile hospital, similar to a MASH unit (mobile Army surgical hospital) also is being built, and the military is improving facilities for interrogations and intelligence processing, sources said.
Currently, there are 160 holding cells for 158 detainees, and the military doesn't want to house two captives to a cell, said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert.
Lehnert said one of the detainees had to be subdued overnight after spitting on a guard. A detainee bit a guard about a week ago, the military said.
Military and other interrogators have begun questioning the detainees without lawyers present, Lehnert said.
"We're seeking information, not prosecution, at this time," he said, declining to specify which agencies are involved in the questioning. The military said it is setting up a computerized system so interrogators can share information easily.
Pentagon officials said that the Bush administration hopes to complete within a week to 10 days its strategy for dealing with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The White House has asked the Justice, Defense and State departments for recommendations on a range of issues, including legal precedents of prosecuting and holding suspected terrorists.
The U.S. government has refused to classify the detainees in Cuba officially as prisoners of war, insisting that al Qaeda and Taliban members don't deserve that designation.
In response to international outcries over this policy, the military maintains the detainees are well-treated and have their needs met. However, Lehnert said that the complaints have prompted discussions about changing procedures such as requiring detainees to wear blackened goggles while they are being moved.
"Obviously, if we can accommodate the humanitarian issues, we will do so," he said, so long as security is not jeopardized.
Human rights groups have criticized the U.S. decision, arguing that the captives should be designated as POWs under the Geneva Convention.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke to that contentious issue Wednesday while flying to Islamabad, Pakistan.
"What is important is that they should be treated in accordance with established norms of law, internationally and otherwise," Annan said. "The U.S. is a nation of laws.
"There's been quite a lot of debate about the application of the Geneva Convention. ... Whether they are prisoners of war or common prisoners, there are certain rights and certain standards which have to be respected."
There are 270 detainees remaining in Afghanistan. In recent days, several dozen detainees in Afghanistan have been sent back to Pakistan or released to other areas of Afghanistan, officials said.
They said those released are either very young or old fighters and those determined not to have critical intelligence.
CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and National Correspondent Bob Franken contributed to this report.
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