WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has chosen a U.S. Navy base in Cuba as the ''least worst'' place to hold Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners after they are removed from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
Rumsfeld said the military has made no plans to hold military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay base. President Bush has authorized military tribunals to try terrorist suspects from other countries, but defense officials said Thursday Rumsfeld has not decided how, where or even if those tribunals would take place.
The base, which the United States has held since 1903, is near the U.S. mainland and highly secure. The Cuban military prohibits all access to areas around the base, and the U.S. military patrols its side from behind tall fences topped with razor wire.
Guantanamo Bay has drawbacks, too, including its location, surrounded on three sides by an island governed by Fidel Castro, an anti-American communist who has criticized the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. But ''we don't anticipate any trouble with Mr. Castro in that regard,'' Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
Rumsfeld said it will take weeks to get the Guantanamo Bay base ready to house the detainees. Although the base has been used in the past to hold Cuban and Haitian refugees, its main purpose in recent years has been to refuel and maintain Navy vessels in the Caribbean.
Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans, a base spokesman, said it now has space for about 100 prisoners.
Rumsfeld said, ''I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected. Its disadvantages, however, seem to be modest relative to the alternatives.''
The United States is holding 45 prisoners in and near Afghanistan, interrogating them about terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's whereabouts and trying to determine which should be brought to trial.
Twenty suspected al-Qaida fighters were transferred Thursday to a U.S. Marine detention center in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They were apprehended in Pakistan after fleeing the area of eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to have been hiding this month.
The Marines were already holding 17 prisoners at Kandahar and another eight, including American John Walker Lindh, were being held on the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
U.S. warplanes hit a suspected Taliban leadership compound early Thursday morning, defense officials said. The compound was near Ghazni, on the main road between the capital, Kabul, and the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Before-and-after pictures of the site released by the Pentagon show a walled compound surrounded by terraced farm fields that was largely flattened after the airstrikes by an AC-130 gunship and B-52 bombers. Pentagon officials said they had no indications any civilians were killed.
The U.S. military still has no proof of whether bin Laden is alive or dead, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, Rumsfeld said.
He said the Pentagon could not confirm a claim by Afghanistan's defense ministry that bin Laden was alive in neighboring Pakistan, being sheltered by Muslim radicals.
Rumsfeld said he was worried that rising tensions between Pakistan and India could hamper U.S. efforts against al-Qaida. India has accused Pakistan of supporting terrorists who attacked India's parliament this month, and the nuclear-armed countries traded economic sanctions Thursday.
He said he was encouraged that Pakistan had not taken troops away from its border with Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said he had not seen a videotape of bin Laden aired Thursday. He said he would let intelligence experts analyze the video. He said he hoped people watching the video would not believe what bin Laden says.
''Here's a man who has killed thousands of innocent people, so using him as the oracle of all truth clearly would be a mistake,'' Rumsfeld said. ''He has lied repeatedly over and over again. He has hijacked a religion. He has hidden and cowered in caves and tunnels while sending people off to die.''
In the tape, bin Laden claims the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan show an ''indescribable hatred of Islam'' and calls his group's work ''blessed terrorism.'' Bin Laden appears pale and gaunt, and refers to the date as being three months from the Sept. 11 terror attacks and about two months from the Oct. 7 start of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
The United States has no firm information to indicate bin Laden was alive after mid-December, Rumsfeld said.
U.S. special forces and local Afghan fighters will continue to search abandoned al-Qaida caves in the Tora Bora area, Rumsfeld said. He had said last week that more U.S. soldiers would take part in searching the caves, driven by ''a sense of urgency.'' Other military officials said the searchers were to include hundreds of U.S. Marines.
But the Marines have not been sent to Tora Bora. Rumsfeld dismissed as ''newspaper talk'' the idea that this meant the Pentagon had reversed course on its search plans.
''We have been consistent from the very beginning that we would have the number of people doing that job that we felt was appropriate and that is exactly what we've been doing,'' Rumsfeld said.
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