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Red Cross: Detainees 'are POWs'

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said it considered al Qaeda fighters held by U.S. forces to be prisoners of war, despite a U.S. declaration to the contrary.

The Geneva-based organisation said it considered both Taliban and al Qaeda detainees held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as inside Afghanistan, to be in the same category.

"They were captured in combat and we consider them prisoners of war," ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told Reuters.

U.S. President George W. Bush agreed on Thursday to apply the Geneva Conventions to Taliban prisoners because Afghanistan was a signatory, even though the Taliban was not recognised by Washington.

But he said the al Qaeda network could not be considered a state that is party to the treaty, which guarantees a wide range of rights to captives.

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Even though acknowledging the conventions applied to the Taliban, Washington said that group would not be granted full prisoner of war status.

Earlier Christen told the BBC: "What we are saying is that any captured combatant in the Afghan conflict is protected by the Geneva Conventions and this is still the case unless it is decided by a competent court."

A spokesman for United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who has asked the U.S. to treat captives humanely, said she felt Washington's decision could be a "step forward."

But the spokesman added that her legal advisers were still examining the implications of Bush's announcement.

Britain, the staunchest ally of the U.S. in its war against those it considers responsible for the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, welcomed the move.

When U.S. navy photographs first appeared showing photographs of al Qaeda and Taliban suspects in manacles, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told British representatives at Guantanamo Bay to ask U.S. officials for an explanation.

There was no immediate response from other European countries, several of which have expressed strong reservations about the way captives from the war in Afghanistan are held.

Washington triggered a storm of international protest after a photograph was released showing some inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp manacled, blindfolded and on their knees. The U.S. has dismissed all suggestions of mistreatment.

Granting prisoner of war status to the captives would have given them sweeping rights, including the right to disclose only their name, rank and serial number under interrogation and to go home as soon as the conflict ended.

The U.S. concern is that if Washington gave prisoner of war status to Taliban fighters and members of al Qaeda -- the network loyal to Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden who Washington says masterminded the September 11 attacks -- it would be virtually impossible to interrogate them.

Both the ICRC and Robinson said that under the Geneva Conventions, to which the U.S. is a signatory, any dispute over the status of a prisoner must be settled by a tribunal and not the government of one of the sides to the conflict.

"You cannot simply decide ... what applies to one person and what applies to another. This has to go to court because it is a legal decision not a political one," Christen said.

Christen noted that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega -- overthrown and captured by U.S. troops in 1990 -- was formally declared a prisoner of war but this did not prevent him being tried and jailed in the United States for drugs offences.

The ICRC is visiting prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as inside Afghanistan and says it will continue to report on their treatment based on standards laid down in the Geneva Conventions.




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