Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

RESPONSE TO TERROR

'Bad Guys' 1st to Arrive at U.S. Base

January 12, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The first clutch of 20 prisoners arrived Friday at a makeshift prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks that touched off the U.S. war on terrorism and 27 hours after leaving a Kandahar, Afghanistan prison.

The first detainee limped off the Air Force C-141 Starlifter plane at 1:50 p.m. local time, bound and shackled, wearing an orange jumpsuit, turquoise face mask and a cap with goggles. The 20 were chosen by the threat they posed, said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of the joint task force responsible for the prisoners.

"These represent the worst elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban," Lehnert said. "We asked for the bad guys first."

Several appeared to resist as they stepped into the 85-degree heat, although Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello said they might have been disoriented from the flight.

At one point, members of a small media pool allowed to observe heard shouting, but it was unclear whether it came from beneath the detainees' face masks or from Marines barking commands. Some prisoners were briefly pushed to their knees before being frisked. Some were ordered to remove their shoes for inspection.

Looming amid the vultures circling overhead was a Navy Huey helicopter with a gunner leaning out the side. On the cactus-strewn plain below stood about 50 heavily armed soldiers from all four U.S. military services, many wearing Kevlar vests, helmets and face shields. One Humvee bore a grenade launcher. Two had 50-caliber machine guns. Offshore was a small Navy patrol boat.

One prisoner was sedated en route, military officials said without elaborating. Military commanders, who had studied pro-Taliban prisoner uprisings in Pakistan and in Mazar-i-Sharif, were taking no chances, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down," Myers told reporters.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld denied that the cage-like cells, hoods and sedatives might violate international standards, as charged by the human rights group Amnesty International.

Lehnert, the general overseeing the prisoners, said their existence at Guantanamo would be "humane but not comfortable." They would be free to practice their religion and given meals consistent with their Muslim diet, he said.

The Pentagon has banned photography, arguing that the Geneva Convention says prisoners of war must be protected "against insults and public curiosity." A senior Defense official said the rule is generally understood to bar governments from parading prisoners before jeering citizens, not news photographs, but blamed Pentagon lawyers for the strict interpretation.

Although the Pentagon plans to use the Geneva rules as a general guide, Rumsfeld said, the detainees would not fall under those rules because they were not uniformed soldiers in a recognized military. Instead, they would be treated as "unlawful combatants."

That came as a surprise to some senior Defense officials, who said an intense debate had been waged over whether that definition fit the Taliban soldiers, who are Afghans. One noted that Taliban soldiers did not attack the United States.

"He's just sitting in his country. We fired and he just fired back," the official said. "How does that make him an unlawful combatant?"

From the ranks of these and other prisoners, U.S. intelligence officials have culled a bonanza of information, Rumsfeld said.

Interrogations and hundreds of items seized from prisoners and their cave and bunker hide-outs--computers, books and cell phones--are helping to identify the fates of other senior leaders and prevent terror attacks, Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing.

A videotape and surveillance notes found in a house in Afghanistan revealed a plot to kill U.S. Navy sailors based in Singapore, government officials said. Rumsfeld said prisoner interrogations had yielded the news that two senior Taliban leaders had been killed in bombing before the end of December.

In Afghanistan, American warplanes continued to strike caves and tunnels in the Zhawar Kili al Badr area south of Kabul, the capital, as they have for the last several days, and the number of U.S. prisoners rose to 445. Defense officials would not say how many would be moved to Guantanamo or how soon, but Lehnert said he expected "periodic shipments."

There were reports that seven Taliban officials, including senior leaders, were allowed to negotiate their freedom rather than be imprisoned, but Rumsfeld said he had not been able to verify the accounts. Conflicting versions of the incident also circulated in Kabul. Afghan officials told Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who is touring the region, that six Taliban were involved in the incident.

Biden, in a telephone interview, said he also was told that the six had not actually been in custody, but were seeking to negotiate terms of surrender.

Only one of the six, Biden said he was told, was a "real bad guy"--a former Taliban interior minister.

Biden said Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader, told him that he had contacted regional and military officials to stress that the former Taliban minister is a fugitive.

"He wants him captured," Biden said.

*

Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Washington and pool information from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, contributed to this report.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|