Hundreds of detainees in the US-led war on terror could remain for years at a US military base -- where they are being held without trial -- a military commander said.
Navy Captain Bob Beuhn, commander of the Guantanamo Bay military base where 598 suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members are incarcerated, would not rule out the detainees could remain at the US outpost for two decades.
"We are definitely talking years, I'd be astonished if anyone challenged that," he said.
He said a proposed three-year budget for the base included provision for a continuation of the detention operations.
"We are taking the approach that the mission as you see it will be there then," he told reporters at the navy base, a US enclave in southeastern Cuba.
He also said that a 20-year plan for the base, which is yet to be presented, does not currently address the issue of detainees, but added: "I would do it just to be on the safe side."
The suspects held at Camp Delta, a highly guarded detention center within the US outpost, have not been told how long they would remain in US custody, nor have they been charged or allowed contact with lawyers.
US officials insist the suspects are not prisoners of war but "enemy combatants" held outside US national territory.
The United States leases the base from Cuba under a century-old agreement that
can only be revoked bilaterally, much to the disgust of Cuban President Fidel
Castro who refuses to cash the annual rental check of about 4,000 dollars.
The possibility has been raised that the detainees eventually could face military tribunals.
Beuhn said he did not know whether such tribunals would be held at the Guantanamo base, though he stressed it would be an ideal location because it is well protected and because it is outside US territory -- which implies it is outside the reach of the US judicial system.
Navy Captain Al Shimkus, who is in charge of medical operations at the base, insisted the detainees "are being treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Convention and subject to our need to protect our troops."
He said the captives were receiving "excellent care."
Asked about psychological counseling for detainees who may need it, Shimkus said: "We are going down that road right now."
Since the first detainees arrived in January, four have attempted to hang themselves.
Shimkus indicated others tried "to draw attention to themselves" by pretending
they would commit suicide, including one who "threatened to swallow his tongue."
© Copyright 2002 AFP