The international Red Cross said Tuesday it fears U.S. officials are holding terror suspects secretly in locations across the world without telling it where they are.
"We have access to people detained by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, but in our understanding there are people that are detained outside these places for which we haven't received notification or access," said Antonella Notari, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Under the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare the United States is obliged to give the neutral, Swiss-run ICRC access to prisoners of war and other detainees to check on their conditions and allow them to send messages to their families.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted to hiding a detainee in Iraq at the request of former CIA director George Tenet. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that even as it announced hearings for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon weighed secretly exempting some detainees from those proceedings.
The United States says it is cooperating with the agency, and has allowed ICRC delegates access to thousands of prisoners, including former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Notari told The Associated Press that some suspects reported as arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on its Web site, or identified in media reports, are unaccounted for.
"Some of these people who have been reported to be arrested never showed up in any of the places of detention run by the U.S. where we visit," Notari said.
The U.S. government has given no official reply to a demand from the ICRC for notification of all detainees, including those held in undisclosed locations, she said.
That request was made by ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger in January on a visit to Washington during which he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"So far we haven't had a satisfactory reply," Notari said.
In his report into allegations of abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found that military police there had "routinely held persons brought to them by Other Government Agencies without accounting for them, knowing their identities, or even the reason for their detention."
On at least one occasion they moved these "ghost detainees" around the prison to hide them from a visiting ICRC delegation, he added. He described the actions as "deceptive, contrary to Army Doctrine, and in violation of international law."
In an interview in Tuesday's edition of the German business daily Handelsblatt, Kellenberger defended the ICRC's policy of refusing to comment publicly on the conditions that it finds in places of detention, preferring to negotiate directly with the authorities.
The agency faced criticism for not speaking out about the abuse at Abu Ghraib until it was revealed in the media.
"Certain people had the impression that our repeated, confidential approaches to the U.S. authorities were falling flat," Kellenberger said.
"But impressions can be wrong. When we visited Abu Ghraib in January 2004, we found improvements compared with October 2003, and when we visited in March it was better than in January."
The ICRC has, however, spoken out on its concerns over the continued detention without trial of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.
"I made it clear in January that we were not happy with the improvements," Kellenberger said.
"The most recent visit has just finished. We must now study the findings."
In related news, Army Reserve Pfc. Lynndie England, charged with abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, was read her rights in court Monday and a military judge set an Aug. 3 hearing to decide if she should face trial.