Fewer Gitmo Hunger Strikers

Guantanamo Bay. Cuba.
The number of detainees holding to a hunger strike dwindled Wednesday, with only three men left who have been without food since the protest's initial days, U.S. military officials said.

The protest began Feb. 27, a day after guards stripped an inmate of his turban during prayers. But prisoners have told their captors their underlying concern is uncertainty about their fate.

Most of the strikers have been eating some food. Nearly all the 51 captives who skipped breakfast, 46 who declined lunch and 25 who refused dinner Wednesday have had at least one meal during the weeklong protest.

"We have what I would refer to as a rolling hunger strike," said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, the commander of the detention mission. "Essentially, people take turns not eating."

U.S. officials are determining whether and how to prosecute the 300 men held at the naval base in southeastern Cuba. Those not tried by a military tribunal could be prosecuted in U.S. courts, returned to their home countries for prosecution, released outright, or held indefinitely.

Lehnert said there are only three men left who have been refusing food since at least Friday, when the military began keeping close records. That number is down from 13 a couple of days ago.

Others join the strike regularly, but not at every meal. The total participating has fallen from a high of 194 last Thursday, to less than 70 on Tuesday, and now less than 50.

"Those abstaining from eating are not creating a security problem," Lehnert said, "They are simply punishing themselves."

So far, the military has been giving intravenous fluids to 18 men at the camp infirmary to treat them for dehydration or undernourishment. In at least two cases, the IVs were given forcibly because the detainees tried to resist, military officials said.

Those skipping meals have been set aside in a single cell block "so that their medical condition can be better evaluated," Lehnert said.

Army Lt. Col. Bill Cline, Camp X-ray's deputy commander, anticipated that the hunger strike would dissipate, saying: "It's their way of getting attention."

Those fasting remain defiant, Lehnert said. But, he said, "when I speak to them individually, many times they apologize for creating the problems, but they're trying to make a case."

On Wednesday, as on other days, guards led captives one-by-one to interrogation rooms at the edge of the camp. The military says the captives include fighters of the al-Qaida terrorist network and the deposed Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials have said they are unsure of the identities of some captives.

Prisoners have not been allowed lawyers and some human rights groups accuse the U.S. government of denying the prisoners legal rights.

The hunger strike is the first mass protest since the first detainees were flown here from Afghanistan on Jan. 11.

The base is preparing to hold more prisoners. Construction of a more permanent detention center has begun and Lehnert said the first 408 cells should be ready about April 12.

The military also is proposing to build an additional 408 cells at the new prison since "It's reasonable to anticipate that our U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan will generate more potential detainees," Lehnert said.

By Ian James