GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A plane carrying 28 detainees from the war in Afghanistan landed Thursday at this remote naval base, where the U.S. government now plans to apply legal protections under the Gevena Conventions to captured Taliban soldiers.
The decision, which the White House announced Thursday, could have significant legal implications for the detainees held at the U.S. military outpost in eastern Cuba. But U.S. officials said captured Taliban soldiers would not be classified as prisoners of war, and the decision will not apply to Al Qaeda fighters and other suspected terrorists.
The latest arrivals on Thursday brought to 186 the number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Six of the detainees who arrived Thursday were on stretchers. All were wearing orange jumpsuits, goggles and shackles.
Two U.S. administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision on the detainees' status was designed to ensure that U.S. soldiers would be afforded protections covered by the Geneva Conventions in the event they are captured.
The convention on prisoners of war sets universal international standards for the humane treatment of POWs. Under the agreement, such prisoners cannot be compelled to give more than their name, rank and serial number.
President Bush does not consider the detainees prisoners of war but still believes the Geneva Convention applies to some of the detainees, the officials said.
Human rights groups and some European governments pressed for the prisoner-of-war designation so that the detainees would have greater legal protections under the Geneva Convention. They also have expressed concern over how the captives have been treated.
The United States, which says the detainees are being treated humanely, suspended flights of prisoners from Afghanistan two weeks ago so that more cells could be built to house them. Officials also said they did not want the processing of new inmates to distract them from their interrogations of suspects already held at the base.
Thursday's arrival was the first since 14 prisoners arrived on Jan. 21. The latest group took off late Wednesday from the U.S. base at Afghanistan's Kandahar airport.
U.S. troops finished work this week on their temporary detention compound, Camp X-Ray. The camp now has 320 open-air chain-link cells, many of which stand empty, ready for new arrivals.
The military could eventually put two detainees to a cell if needed, said Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, leader of the detention mission.
The United States has refused to say where the 186 prisoners are from, except to say they come from more than two dozen countries. A handful of nations -- Australia, Britain, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Yemen -- have said their citizens are among detainees.
There are more than 50 Saudis among them, according to Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef. His country, like some others, has asked that its citizens be handed over so it can interrogate them.
The first detainees arrived at Camp X-Ray on Jan. 11. U.S. officials say the prisoners are among the most dangerous fighters of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network and Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime.
The military erected a tented field hospital for detainees, and in its first week of operation, the 16 staff physicians performed 210 surgeries, said Navy Capt. Pat Alford, who is in charge of the hospital.
Officials say the field hospital, known as Fleet Hospital 20, could eventually hold 500 detainees for medical care.
"I was wondering from being so close to New York City how I would feel about the detainees, and my first thought on seeing them was ... 'How sad for all of us. We're all in this together,"' said Lt. Laura Bender, a United Methodist Church chaplain from Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, who was at the hospital.
On Thursday, physicians were to amputate the leg of a detainee who received an infection from a battle injury. It was the first amputation among the detainees in Guantanamo.
On Wednesday, medical personnel removed the eye of detainee who had injured himself in a youth cricket game before his capture.
"I think overall they (detainees) are happy to be getting the care," Bender said. "They don't speak English but I've been watching their body language and facial expressions and they seem to be willing participants. I have not seen any animosity toward their care givers."
Eight patients were being treated at the hospital on Thursday. Some were growing back their hair, which was shaved off after their capture. The military decided to allow detainees to grow their hair and beards back at the urging of a Muslim cleric who leads the camp in prayers.
A few of the detainees in the hospital wore blue pajamas. One, with his manacled hands clasped to his chest, exercised his right leg under the watchful guide of a guard.
While detainees are regularly wheeled out of their cells on gurneys for interrogation, officials have refused to discuss details of the questioning. Lehnert has said some detainees could be returned home as a result, if their countries agree to prosecute them.
The military asked Congress last week to approve funds to build a semi-permanent prison on the base, Lehnert said. It would take about 55 days to build the first 408 cells of the new prison, which could eventually hold 2,000 inmates.
That supports suggestions by some observers that Guantanamo could become a clearinghouse for a wide range of suspected terrorists, including some with little or no connection to Afghanistan, the Taliban or bin Laden.