Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Taliban and al-Qaida war prisoners, hooded and chained, are being assembled by U.S. forces at Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan for movement to a detention facility in Cuba.
In an operation presenting what officials Thursday called an unprecedented security challenge, prisoners were shuttled from locations throughout Afghanistan to the Marines' main jail at the airport. Others were moved from the Navy's USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.
Pentagon officials said prisoners would also be chained to their seats -- and possibly be sedated, forced to use urinals and be fed by their guards -- during the flights from Afghanistan to newly constructed jail cells in Guantanamo, Cuba, according to newspaper and television reports. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke wouldn't comment on the reports except to say detainees were being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention rules on prisoners.
She told a Thursday press briefing that she was trying to determine what details of the transfer would be released, saying officials would not be talking about schedules or other things that would breach security, but would simply announce when the detainees had reached Guantanamo.
Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the transfer could begin as early as Thursday.
"This thing is being done ... with the most expertise that we can bring to bear on it," said spokesman Steve Lucas at the U.S. Southern Command, the Miami-based command that is helping coordinate the move.
"These suicidally murderous people have compatriots at large," said Lucas. "We don't want to provide them any information that could make a big terrorist splash."
In two separate deadly incidents, prisoners got hold of weapons and staged an uprising while held in a fortress in northern Afghanistan, while others killed Pakistani guards after being apprehended trying to escape into that country. American troops have held the prisoners in much greater security since taking custody of them.
"Nothing like this to my knowledge has been done before (considering) the level of threat and probably the size and distance too," Lucas said of the imminent transfer. "I'm not sure that anyone has every handled detainees of this type and transferred them 20 hours or whatever it is -- around the world."
The regrouping of prisoners overnight Wednesday Washington time brought the number in Kandahar to 351, said Lt. Col. Martin Compton at the U.S. Central Command's war command center in Tampa, Fla. A total of 371 are in U.S. custody, with 19 remaining in Bagram, one on the Bataan and none in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, he said.
Preliminary plans were to take them from Kandahar on C-17s to a base in Europe where they could be transferred to C-140 cargo planes for the remainder of the trip to Cuba.
Those in U.S. custody have been selected from among thousands captured by Afghan fighters as they took one city after another from the former Taliban rulers who had been harboring Osama bin Laden and is al-Qaida terrorists.
"These people vowed to win their way into paradise by murdering anybody in American uniform, or for that matter, any civilians," Lucas said in reference to the terrorists' radical Islamic beliefs. "The level of threat is probably unique."