U.S. to move al-Qaida, Taliban to Navy base in Cuba

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has chosen a U.S. Navy base in Cuba as the "least worst" place to hold Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners after they are removed from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.

Rumsfeld said the military has made no plans to hold military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay base. President Bush has authorized military tribunals to try terrorist suspects from other countries, but defense officials said Thursday Rumsfeld has not decided how, where or even if those tribunals would take place.

The base, which the United States has held since 1903, is near the U.S. mainland and highly secure. The Cuban military prohibits all access to areas around the base, and the U.S. military patrols its side from behind tall fences topped with razor wire.

Guantanamo Bay has drawbacks, too, including its location, surrounded on three sides by an island governed by Fidel Castro, an anti-American communist who has criticized the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. But "we don't anticipate any trouble with Mr. Castro in that regard," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.

Rumsfeld said it will take weeks to get the Guantanamo Bay base ready to house the detainees. Although the base has been used in the past to hold Cuban and Haitian refugees, its main purpose in recent years has been to refuel and maintain Navy vessels in the Caribbean.

Space for 100

Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans, a base spokesman, said it now has space for about 100 prisoners.

Rumsfeld said, "I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected. Its disadvantages, however, seem to be modest relative to the alternatives."

The United States is holding 45 prisoners in and near Afghanistan, interrogating them about terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's whereabouts and trying to determine which should be brought to trial.

Twenty suspected al-Qaida fighters were transferred Thursday to a U.S. Marine detention center in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

They were apprehended in Pakistan after fleeing the area of eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to have been hiding this month.

The Marines were already holding 17 prisoners at Kandahar and another eight, including American John Walker Lindh, were being held on the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.