"They have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us" - Navy Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, base commander
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THREE Guantanamo Bay detainees hanged themselves using nooses made of bedsheets and clothes, the commander of the facility confirmed yesterday, describing the suicides as "an act of asymmetric warfare" against the United States.
The suicides, which US military officials said were co-ordinated, have triggered further condemnation of the isolated detention centre in Cuba, which holds some 460 men on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Only ten have been charged with crimes and there has been growing international pressure on the US to close the prison.
Two men from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen were found dead shortly after midnight on Saturday in separate cells, said the US Southern Command, which has jurisdiction over the prison. Attempts to revive the men were unsuccessful.
"They hung themselves with fabricated nooses made out of clothes and bed sheets," Navy Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, the base commander, said. "They have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."
Military officials said the men had been held in Guantanamo Bay for about four years. The Saudi authorities identified their dead citizens as Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al Habradi and Yasser Talal Abdullah Yahya al Zahrani. The identity of the Yemeni is not yet known.
All three detainees had engaged in a hunger strike in protest at their indefinite imprisonment and had been force-fed before giving up their protest.
One of the detainees was a mid or high-level al-Qaeda operative, while another had been captured in Afghanistan and participated in a riot at a prison there, Rear-Admiral Harris said. The third belonged to a splinter group.
Detainees have not been allowed to know about classified evidence of allegations against them and thus are unable to respond.
"They're determined, intelligent, committed and they continue to do everything they can to become martyrs in the jihad," said General John Craddock, commander of the Miami-based Southern Command. All three men left suicide notes, Gen Craddock said. He refused to detail the contents of the contents.
Pentagon officials said the three men were in Camp 1, the highest-security area at Guantanamo, and that none of them had tried to commit suicide before. To help prevent more suicides, guards will now give bed sheets to detainees only when they go to bed and remove them after they wake up in the morning, Harris said.
George Bush, the US president expressed "serious concern" over the suicides and directed his administration to reach out diplomatically while it investigates the incident.
Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has taken a cautious line on Guantanamo Bay, calling it an "anomaly" but not demanding its immediate closure.
Some of his ministers take a harder line, however, with Harriet Harman, the constitutional affairs minister and possible contender for the Labour deputy leadership, yesterday calling for immediate action over the prison.
"If it is perfectly legal and there is nothing going wrong there, why don't they have it in America and then the American court system can supervise it?" she said.
"It is in a legal no-man's land. Either it should be moved to America or it should be closed."
Guantanamo officials have reported 41 unsuccessful suicide attempts by 25 detainees since the US began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002. Defence lawyers contend the number of suicide attempts is higher.
Another embarrassment for Bush
THE three suicides at Guantanamo Bay have achieved a victory in death that they failed to find in life: their actions embarrass the US and seem likely to increase the pressure on Washington to close the facility.
The rights and wrongs of the situation scarcely matter: the US has been tried and found wanting in the court of public opinion. For Washington there is one simple question: are the advantages of Guantanamo Bay now outweighed by the international opprobrium the prison attracts?
It would be out of character for the Bush administration to change its mind because of pressure from the international community, but the camp gives the US's critics a stick with which to beat Washington.
President Bush has said: "We'd like it [Guantanamo] to be empty. Trouble is, there are some that, if put out on the streets, would create grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world."
And the view among many ordinary Americans is that these three inmates have set an ideal example for the remaining 460 or so prisoners incarcerated on Cuba. Only human rights lobby groups and hand-wringing liberals are much concerned by the fate of prisoners whose living conditions are, in most respects, little worse than those in ordinary American jails.
The difference is that those prisoners have been tried and convicted of specific crimes.
American officials will protest that the suicides are no more than a political protest. But no matter how grisly it may be, as publicity stunts go, those dead inmates have the whip hand. That this should be the case is perhaps the biggest defeat and embarrassment the US has suffered in the post-9/11 world. Its stubbornness and indifference to the opinion of the rest of the world have helped foster a situation in which, grotesquely, terrorists have become the sympathetic victims.
That, more than anything else, has been Washington's most disastrous defeat in the war on terrorism. This weekends' deaths at Guantanamo Bay seem likely, alas, to confirm that.
ALEX MASSIE IN WASHINGTON