SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Prisoners with makeshift weapons battled guards trying to save a detainee pretending to commit suicide at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in what military officials said Friday was a coordinated attack that left six prisoners injured.
Word of the injuries comes as a U.N. panel pressed the United States to close Guantanamo, saying the indefinite detention of terror suspects violates the ban on torture.
"This illustrates to me the dangerous nature of the men we have detained here," the detention center's commanding officer, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, told reporters in a teleconference, describing Thursday's attack.
The clash, which took place the same day two detainees attempted suicide elsewhere in the camp, was among the most violent incidents reported at the isolated detention center, where the U.S. holds about 460 men suspected of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Defense lawyers said the suicide attempts reflect increasing despair among detainees, most of whom have been held for more than four years without charges.
"Under these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that people become desperate and hopeless enough to attempt suicide," said Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, an attorney for a detainee from Bahrain who has repeatedly tried to kill himself.
The most recent turmoil at the detention center perched above the Caribbean on a U.S. Navy base in southeastern Cuba began Thursday morning when a detainee who failed to show up for morning prayers was found unconscious in his cell, Harris said.
Tests indicated he had taken an overdose of drugs similar to the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. He was hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
Early in the afternoon, guards searching the prison for contraband prescription medicine found another detainee "frothing at the mouth" from an overdose of drugs. He was also hospitalized in stable condition, the admiral said.
In the early evening, guards spotted a detainee in Camp Four — a medium security, communal-living unit for the "most compliant" prisoners — appearing to get ready to hang himself with a bed sheet in the room he shared with nine detainees.
The apparent suicide attempt "was a ruse to get the guards to enter the compound," Harris said.
The detainees had made the floor slippery with feces, urine and soapy water and attacked 10 members of Guantanamo's quick-reaction force with fan blades, pieces of metal and broken light fixtures, Harris said.
For several minutes, the detainees appeared to have the upper hand, knocking some of the soldiers to the ground, said Army Col. Michael Bumgarner, a camp official.
"Frankly we were losing the fight at that point," Bumgarner said.
Outside, Guantanamo officials mustered 100 more guards before the quick reaction force gained control using pepper spray, unspecified "physical force," five blasts of a shotgun that fires rubber pellets and one shot from a non-lethal weapon that Bumgarner said fires a sponge-like projectile.
Detainees in two other units of Camp Four began damaging security cameras, light fixtures and other items in their rooms in a show of support for those engaged in the melee. Guantanamo officials estimated the total damage at $110,000.
Six detainees had minor injuries and no guards were injured, Harris said. The prisoners involved in the melee were moved to a higher security area.
"I believe that this was probably the most violent outbreak here," Harris said.
President Bush has said he would like to close Guantanamo, but is waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on whether inmates can face military tribunals. And, regarding the U.N. report, the U.S. government insisted it complies with the world ban against torture, including at the lockup at Guantanamo on Cuba. "It is important to note that everything that is done in terms of questioning detainees is fully within the boundaries of American law," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
The United States expressed disappointment with the committee report, which was based on two sessions this month with a 25-member delegation of officials from Washington and hundreds of pages of U.S. documents.
"It's unfortunate that they don't appear to have read a good deal of that information or have ignored it, and as a result there are a number of both factual inaccuracies and legal misstatements about the law applicable to the United States," said State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III.
On Thursday, the military transferred 15 Saudi detainees to their country, but Harris said he did not think there was a connection. Authorities did not provide the names or home countries of those involved in the attack or attempted suicides.
The U.N. committee also said detainees should not be handed over to any country where they could face a "real risk" of being tortured.
Bellinger, who led the U.S. delegation at the panel hearings, said it was not "practical" to recommend that Guantanamo be closed but insist that prisoners should not be sent to a large number of countries. "So it's not exactly clear what they think ought to happen to these individuals," he said.
Guantanamo has had a number of protests and more minor disturbances since the U.S. began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002.
The U.S. military said 23 detainees carried out a coordinated effort to hang or strangle themselves in 2003 during a weeklong protest. A hunger strike that began in August has involved up to 131 detainees, the military said, though the figure has dwindled to just a handful. Earlier this year, Guantanamo officials began strapping striking detainees into a restraint chair to force feed them.
Guantanamo officials said there have been 41 suicide attempts by 25 detainees and no deaths since the camp opened. Defense lawyers contend the figure is higher.
Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney, said a client of his from Chad had attempted suicide twice in January and he did not learn about it until March from another detainee. Before Thursday, the military said there had only been one attempt in 2006.
At least 12 suicide attempts were by Juma'a Mohammed al-Dossary, a 32-year-old from Bahrain.
Colangelo-Bryan, who represents al-Dossary and spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, said he visited his client last week and saw scars on his throat and the back of his neck from his most recent suicide attempt in March. The attorney, whose firm Dorsey and Whitney LLP of Minneapolis, Minn., represents three detainees from Bahrain, said he did not know if any of his clients were involved in Thursday's melee.