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US Makes Long-Term Planning for Detainee Operation at Guantanamo - 2002-09-14

The United States currently holds nearly 600 suspected Taleban and al-Qaida combatants at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just what will become of them, and how long they remain in U.S. custody, is not known. But the base commander at Guantanamo says ongoing, long-range planning for the remote U.S. facility encompasses the possibility of holding the detainees for years, perhaps decades. VOA's Michael Bowman recently returned from Guantanamo.

Captain Bob Buehn likens his role at Guantanamo to that of a mayor. The naval station's commanding officer says he does not expect the detainee operation to end anytime soon. "We are definitely in the mindset that we are talking years, not months now," he says.

Captain Buehn's comments can be seen as an indication that the United States may hold the detainees, most of whom were captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, for an extended period of time.

Officially, the United States says no decision has been made as to how long the detainee operation will last. But Captain Buehn says he is currently planning the base's budgetary, personnel and other administrative affairs for the year 2005, and that the plan includes provisions that would allow the detainee operation to continue through that date. He adds that even longer-range planning is also taking place, encompassing the next 20 to 25 years, to ensure that detainee operations do not conflict with the base's longstanding mission of serving as a processing center for Haitian and Cuban refugees the United States intercepts at sea.

Captain Buehn stresses there is no guarantee that the suspected Taleban and al-Qaida detainees will, in fact, be held at Guantanamo through 2005 or beyond. But he says Guantanamo Bay will be ready to hold them for years to come, if need be.

The Bush administration says the detainees will likely face justice in the form of military-style tribunals at a date yet to be determined. Captain Buehn points out Guantanamo would be a logical place to prosecute the former combatants.

"I think it is logical, because everything is here," he says. "The high-interest [government and military] people are here, and I think we could probably handle it facilities-wise. Politically, I cannot speak to that, but it [trials] could be done here."

On another matter, officials at Guantanamo say precautions are being taken to protect troops and detainees alike from West Nile virus, which has infected hundreds of people and led to several deaths in the United States in recent years. Scientists say it is only a matter of time before the mosquito-borne illness spreads to the Caribbean and beyond.

The head medical officer at Guantanamo, Captain A.J. Shimkus, emphasizes the threat is being taken seriously and that the base is being closely monitored for any signs of the virus. "West Nile is not indigenous to Cuba, but because of our attempts to be out in front [anticipate problems] we have put [mosquito] traps in areas of human habitation at Guantanamo. We have had no mosquitoes come back with West Nile," he explains. "You just get bitten and scratch it."

Captain Shimkus says approximately 30 detainees are currently receiving treatment for mental disorders. He says it would be reasonable to expect mental health issues to become more prevalent the longer the detainee operation lasts.