Briton among Al Qaeda chain gang

by CAROL ROSENBERG, Mail on Sunday

One by one, manacled and masked, the first 20 of an expected 2,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners arrived in this sweltering US military outpost - four months to the day after September 11.

The Foreign Office confirmed that there was one Briton among them.

Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, commander of the military prison which will be home to the prisoners, said: 'These represent the worst elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first.'

At least one prisoner had been sedated on the flight and most offered little resistance as they hobbled, in fluorescent orange jumpsuits with matching caps, from the huge US Air Force cargo plane that had brought them halfway round the world to this hastily built jail for terrorists in the Caribbean.

When two struggled, one of the military policemen at each arm deftly dropped them to their knees then quickly pulled them up to show who was in charge.

Those considered the most dangerous had their legs shackled. Some wore turquoise surgical masks over their mouths. Medical check-ups before the flight revealed they had tuberculosis. Others had goggles over their eyes.

Reports from Afghanistan said that before the flight on Friday to Cuba they had their heads and beards shaved - which would be against their religious beliefs. But there was not a clear enough view of the prisoners to see if this was true as they trudged towards two waiting white school buses.

The prisoners had endured a 27-hour, 8,000-mile flight from Kandahar, all the while shackled to their seats, first aboard a smaller C-17 Hercules carrier then in the giant C-141 Starlifter transport jet.

Explaining the tight security on board, General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference: 'These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a plane to bring it down.'

Nothing was left to chance for the arrival of the first captives of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Military police ringed the aircraft as it taxied to a stop at the single-runway airstrip of this sprawling base on the south-eastern tip of Cuba. Marines in armoured vehicles had rocket launchers and machine guns, bullet-proof vests, helmets and face shields. A US Navy helicopter hovered overhead, a small Navy boat patrolled offshore.

Cameramen and photographers were barred from taking pictures of the first arrivals and their transfer to Camp X-Ray, a rugged prison with 6ft-by-8-ft open-air cells surrounded by razor wire.

There the prisoners were given two towels - one for a prayer mat, the other for showering - a flannel, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and shampoo.

Then they were isolated in individual cells with walls of chain-link fence and metal roofs. Last night they slept on mats on the ground with halogen floodlights lighting their compound.

The prisoners face intense interrogation over the coming weeks, especially-about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

Amnesty International said housing the detainees in the cages fell 'below minimum standards for humane treatment'. But to avoid being tied to the strict rules regarding PoWs laid down by the Geneva Convention, America refuses to call them Prisoners of War and wants to try Al Qaeda and Taliban captives on its own terms.

The US Defence Department said their detention would 'follow the guidelines' of the Geneva agreement.

Officials declined to say if the International Red Cross or Red Crescent were on the base, or how many interpreters there were.

American John Walker Lindh, who was captured fighting alongside the Taliban, is still on the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now