GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A hunger strike by prisoners at this remote U.S. naval base seemed to lose momentum after the U.S. military agreed to allow the Taliban and Al Qaeda captives to wear turbans, as long as guards could inspect them at any time.
Of the 300 terror suspects detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, 85 refused to eat breakfast Saturday, military officials said. That number was up from about 75 at lunch and dinner Friday but down from the peak of the hunger strike Thursday, when 194 prisoners declined lunch.
The protest began Wednesday after guards removed a makeshift turban from a praying captive's head. Military officials had previously banned turbans because they might be used to hide weapons.
It was unclear whether some prisoners have been fasting since Wednesday or whether different inmates have skipped meals at different times.
The military says the prisoners are fighters of the international al-Qaida terrorist network, believed responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the deposed Afghan Taliban regime that harbored it. Some have been held at the base in southeastern Cuba since Jan. 11.
Detainees told officials the hunger strike was in response to two guards stripping a detainee of his turban during prayers Tuesday after the inmate ignored orders to remove it, Marine Maj. Stephen Cox said. He added that detainees have been issued prayer caps or can drape towels over their heads.
The policy change on head coverings seemed to have little impact on those who continued their hunger strike Friday.
Two inmates were taken to the camp infirmary Friday and treated for dehydration through intravenous drips, officials said. One ate and was taken back to his cell. The other refused to eat and remained in the infirmary.
"We're certainly not going to allow them to harm themselves or starve," said Marine Capt. Alan Crouch, a spokesman for the detention mission.
Even those declining food appear to be drinking water, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, another spokesman.
In an address to prisoners Thursday night by Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, the Marine in charge of the detention mission, indicated there might be more to the hunger strike.
"He told them at this point he could not tell them how long they will be here or what will happen to them in the future," Cox said.
"Gen. Lehnert also told the detainees that they will be judged fairly" when the time comes, Cox said.
The new policy "was explained to the detainees, and they've talked back and forth to the commanders and the chaplain several times ... and we are hoping it will ease the tension," Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, said Friday at the Pentagon.
Friday afternoon, Camp X-ray was quiet, with detainees passing the time as usual – pacing in their chain-link cells, sitting or lying down. A few were interrogated in wooden buildings near their cells. They are not allowed to have lawyers.
Tension has been building among the inmates, some of whom were held for months in Afghanistan before being brought to Guantanamo beginning seven weeks ago.
In recent days, some have ignored a taped call to prayer and instead have picked individual detainees to announce and lead prayers, which Muslims do five times a day.
A week ago there was "a disturbance" when a guard doing a random search of a cell inadvertently dropped a copy of the Quran, officials said.
"There is an underlying tension associated with the uncertainty of their future," Cox said.
U.S. officials say they are determining the legal fates of the detainees. Those not tried by a military tribunal either would be prosecuted in a U.S. court, returned to their home countries for prosecution, released outright or held indefinitely.
Some of Washington's closest allies have criticized President Bush's proposal to try some detainees before secret military tribunals empowered with the death penalty.
The detainees come from 32 countries, several of which have asked that their nationals be returned home to face trial.
"In some instances, and I won't pick out a country, it is indeed likely that some of those detainees may go back to those countries," Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said at the Pentagon Friday.
Amnesty International said the protest "highlights the dangers of the legal limbo into which the prisoners have been thrown" and underscores the "urgent need" for the United States to allow the prisoners due process, including the right to challenge their detentions.