Washington - The United States military said on Wednesday it had suspended flights of Afghan war captives to a US Navy base in Cuba to expand makeshift jail facilities and co-ordinate intelligence gathered in the war on terrorism.
Officials at the Pentagon and the military's Southern Command headquarters in Miami said the secure flights to Guantanamo Bay, where 158 al-Qaeda and Taliban "detainees" are already held in small, outdoor cage-like cells under tight guard, could resume as early as next week.
The move came amid harsh criticism of treatment of the captives and as captured US Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh was being flown under tight guard to Washington to face trial in a federal court in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.
The 20-year-old from California, who goes by his mother's name, left Afghanistan on a military cargo jet on Tuesday and was expected to land at Dulles International Airport later on Wednesday. He was expected to be escorted to a detention centre by US marshals and appear before a federal magistrate as early as Thursday.
Civil rights groups and some foreign lawmakers have criticised treatment of shackled detainees on flights to Guantanamo Bay and at the base as well as US refusal to designate them as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has defended as humane the treatment of the captives, who - considered extremely dangerous - are shackled and masked in transit from Afghanistan to Cuba.
Steve Lucas, a spokesperson for the Southern Command, said on Wednesday that questioning of the captives had not begun yet and that an inter-agency government task force was determining how best to get and co-ordinate information to halt possible future strikes following the September 11 terror attacks on America.
"The need to obtain and exploit (information) for the protection of our country and the world is one of the first priorities," Lucas said.
"I think that has a lot to do with it (the suspension of flights)... to take advantage of the fact that we have some of the worst of the worst."
Defence officials at the Pentagon said the Guantanamo flights, which have transported groups of up to 30 prisoners at a time this month, were suspended in large measure because space was running out as more permanent facilities were being built at the isolated outpost where the prisoners are housed in outdoor cells under the constant glare of spotlights.
"They have been suspended for now," said one senior official. "We only have room for 160 (detainees) in the cells right now and we didn't want to double them up in cells."
The spotlight in Washington was on Walker, captured in Afghanistan on December 1 and charged on January 15, with conspiring to kill US nationals in the Afghanistan war and with providing support to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Walker had been held on the US warship Bataan in the Arabian Sea, but was moved to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday and then to a flight to the United States.
He was captured after an uprising among Taliban fighters at a prison outside the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. CIA agent Mike Spann was killed during the uprising.
Walker, who converted to Islam in 1997 at age 16, joined Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2001.
In an unusual, hour-long briefing for reporters on Tuesday, Rumsfeld defended treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
"I haven't found a single scrap of any kind of information that suggests that anyone has been treated anything other than humanely," he said.
The secretary told reporters it was easy for critics with no direct knowledge of the situation to protest treatment of captives, but that "dangerous" detainees at Guantanamo had been treated fairly in transit from Afghanistan and at the base, which is on lease from Cuba, in the spirit of the Geneva Convention. - Reuters