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.
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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.
Cox said the prisoners’ goggles were blacked out for security reasons. Had they not been led blind from the airplane, they would have seen a cactus-studded landscape of heavy brush with vultures soaring overhead - far different from that in Afghanistan.
Their face masks, he said, were to protect the U.S. troops escorting them, because some prisoners had previously tested positive for tuberculosis.
But the biggest impression was that of force. In addition to an ambulance, three fire trucks and some sort of command post, the military rolled out a heavy presence of Marines in Kevlar vests, helmets and face shields - plus heavily armed Humvees.
Mindful of earlier Taliban rebellions, in Northern Alliance-run prisons, the Army MPs and Marines worked deliberately throughout the evening to process the prisoners into their cells.
By 9 p.m., Cox said, only 13 had received physicals, showers, fresh jumpsuits and were already in their cells.
The last seven were expected to be incarcerated by 11 p.m.
“It was calm, “ he reported. “There was no particular resistance put up. There was not struggling. There was not wrestling. There was none of that type of thing taking place.” Lehnert, who arrived to run the operation that will eventually move the prisoners to permanent cells, said that “their existence will be humane but not comfortable. They will be practicing the free expression of their religion.”
To that end, the officer said, they will be provided with “Halal” diets, a reference to the Muslim proscription against eating pork. Cox displayed an example: A vacuum-packed vegetable-and-pasta dish, plus an accessory pack that included peanuts, a granola bar and a box of Fruit Loops.
To drink, they will be given water, Cox said.
It was 88 degrees at noon Friday, and soggy, something likely unfamiliar to fighters from Afghanistan. By night, mosquitoes swarm and bite.
Each man is confined to one cell, a mat on a concrete block floor, and gets a bucket in which to relieve himself. The camp warden said MPs would lead them, one by one, to latrines as need be, and conceded that when it rains, some will get wet.
Other supplies they will receive, described by Cox as “comfort items, “ include two bath towels, one to use for bathing, the other to serve as a prayer mat; toothpaste and brush; soap and shampoo, plus flip-flops for footwear.
“They get the two towels but no blanket, “ the major said.
The captives’ status and their future are unclear. Military spokesmen went out of their way this week to describe them as “detainees, “ not prisoners of war, although Lehnert described them at a news conference as “EPWs” - enemy prisoners of war.
There are no provisions here for lawyers, arraignments or tribunals, although the Defense Department has said the prisoners’ detention will be consistent with the Geneva Conventions.
Meantime, President Bush is deciding whether the prisoners will be brought before military tribunals, and U.S. government lawyers are writing proposals for how such trials might take place.
So the prisoners’ fate is uncertain, and so is how long they will stay.
Officials repeatedly declined to say whether representatives of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent were on the base. Nor would they say how many interpreters they had managed to fly in.
Military spokesman did, however, confirm that military investigators, both of the Navy and a joint command, were on hand eventually to interrogate the prisoners. Lehnert said Friday’s was just the first of what was expected to be periodic prisoner shipments. He would not provide a timetable.