GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- U.S. troops were hurriedly building makeshift cells out of chain-link fences for the first Afghan inmates expected this week at this remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
"I have 100 cells prepared," said Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, who is leading a joint task force of 660 service men and women deployed to build the new prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
The military led a group of reporters Wednesday on a tour of the temporary cells that will hold the first suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members, due here by week's end.
"Our job is to take these terrorists out of the fight by locking them up," Lehnert said.
2,000 cells planned
He said treatment of the detainees -- in temporary, outdoor cells with metal roofs -- would be "humane but not comfortable."
Officials hope to build 220 such cells, and eventually 2,000 permanent ones to hold war detainees.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the government would decide the detainees' legal status case by case.
"They will be provided with food and appropriate medical care," he said. "And I think it's safe to say that no matter where they are, Guantanamo or anywhere else, their conditions will be much better than the conditions under which they existed when they lived in Afghanistan."
The military is building the high-security detention facility at the base's Camp X-ray, used in the past decade to hold migrants from Haiti and Cuba intending to enter the United States illegally.
The camp is surrounded by guard towers and several rings of fences topped with coils of barbed wire.
The prisoners and those assigned to guard them will add to the 2,700 people normally on the 45-square-mile base, the oldest U.S. overseas outpost.
The U.S. military first seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. President Theodore Roosevelt leased the land from Cuba in 1903, and President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the base expanded in 1939.
Ever since Fidel Castro's communist revolution, in 1959, the U.S. military presence on Cuban soil has been a source of irritation to the communist government.
Under the first lease, the United States agreed to pay Cuba 2,000 gold coins a year, now valued at $4,085. Washington continues to pay that amount every year, but Castro's government refuses to cash the checks.
Cuban soldiers patrol the area around the base, where they have planted thousands of land mines. After Castro ordered the base's water supply cut in 1964, the U.S. military built a desalination plant, making the base self-sufficient.
While Cuba has opposed U.S. military action in Afghanistan, it condemned the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States and said it supports efforts to eliminate international terrorism.
The Cuban government has said it has no opinion of U.S. plans to hold Afghan war detainees at the base.
In all, U.S. forces report holding 364 suspected Taliban or al-Qaida members, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington. It was unclear how many would initially be brought to Guantanamo.
Until they arrive, U.S. forces in Afghanistan guarding the suspects are being extremely careful, aware that the fighters are willing to die to attack Americans.
"Obviously, any time you have detainees who will sacrifice their life to kill you or what you stand for ... that's the most dangerous type of individual you can have in your control," Myers said.