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Fate of 'detainees' hangs on US wording

Are Afghan captives POWs? US terminology may allow for special military tribunals.

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The future of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held in Cuba is as unclear as the view through the darkened goggles they were made to wear when they stepped off the plane at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay.

Already, Washington's refusal to grant them official prisoner-of- war status has sparked protests from human rights groups, and a disagreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which oversees the Geneva Conventions. But for the US, the POW designation has little to do with steel manacles or open-air cells. Rather, it appears to be sidestepping the conventions in order to craft an unusual legal strategy that will enable it to try Al Qaeda suspects in special US military tribunals.

Fifty men are currently being held in Guantanamo, in six-by-eight foot concrete-floored cells, with wooden roofs and chainlink fence "walls" that leave them open to the elements. US military engineers are preparing to build up to 2,000 such cells, if necessary; more than 400 prisoners are still being held in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told re- porters that "we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent that they are appropriate."

But he was careful to refer to the prisoners as "unlawful combatants" or "battlefield detainees," not prisoners of war. That description severely reduces the rights that the men would have as POWs under the Geneva Conventions, and prompted a rebuttal from the International Red Cross.

"We say they should be presumed to be POWs, and it is not up to the ICRC or to the US military authorities to decide, but up to the courts," said Michael Kleiner, an ICRC spokesman.

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