GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- One by one, manacled and masked, the first 20 of up to perhaps 2,000 Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners arrived in this sweltering U.S. military outpost on Friday - four months to the day after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some apparently struggled, and Marines appeared to push them to their knees.
Most, however, seemed to offer little resistance as they hobbled from the huge Air Force cargo plane that ferried them halfway across the world to a jail for terrorism suspects on the edge of the Caribbean.
They wore fluorescent orange jumpsuits, and those whose legs were shackled walked with baby steps. Apparently, when a few resisted, one of two Marine MPs at each arm deftly dropped them to their knees, then quickly pulled them up, to show who was in charge.
On their heads were matching orange ski caps, guarding against the cargo plane's cold, topped by earmuff-style noise protectors' against the engines' roar.
On their mouths were turquoise surgical masks, supposedly to protect troops against tuberculosis. And some had blackout goggles over their eyes.
"These represent the worst elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first, " declared Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of the prison project, just hours before their huge C-141 Starlifter set down from a 27-hour journey from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The military left nothing to chance in the first arrival of captives from Operation Enduring Freedom.
They ringed the aircraft on the leeward side of this sprawling base with Marines in Humvees, some armed with rocket launchers, others with heavy machine guns. A Navy Huey helicopter hovered overhead, a gunner hanging off the side.
And television and newspaper photographers who formed part of a Pentagon news pool were forbidden to document the first-ever arrival and transfer of prisoners at Camp X-Ray, a rugged prison camp with six-by-eight-foot, open-air cells.
The operation was shrouded in secrecy and high security.
Then, suddenly Friday afternoon, reporters were led to a hill and allowed to watch the delicate transfer of the 20 from the aircraft to two white school buses. They were taken on a ferry boat to cells on the base's windward side.
Neither Lehnert nor any other military official involved in the camp here would provide the prisoners' names, affiliations, or even their ages. Nor would they say whether the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, was among the group.
About an hour after landing, the first appeared, surrounded by a knot of Marines. In all, the unloading part of the mission lasted 31 minutes, time enough to lead the prisoners off one by one, frisk them and in some instances take off their shoes.
"It looked like a well rehearsed operation, a very thorough operation, " said Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello, spokesman for the Joint Task Force that in less than a week set up the prison camp.
Later, a spokesman for the operation commander, Marine Maj. Steve Cox, disputed that Marine MPs had struggled with some prisoners coming off the plane. "No, quite to the contrary. They were wobbly and disoriented."
It all took place on a sultry afternoon in Cuba, along the single working runway at this naval station that until it got its latest detention assignment was in virtual caretaker mode. But Friday it bustled with purpose.
A small U.S. Navy boat patrolled offshore, within view of the huge aircraft while the Huey made passes between the airport and the glittering blue waters of the Caribbean.