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US gets new pressure to shut Guantanamo

Suicides bring plea from Europeans

WASHINGTON -- Three suicides at Guantanamo showed reasons for the US camp to be closed, European officials said yesterday.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, went into damage control over an official's comment that the deaths were a ``good PR move."

Two Saudis and a Yemeni hanged themselves with clothes and bedsheets in their cells on Saturday. They were the first prisoners to have died at Guantanamo since the United States began sending suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban captives there in 2002.

``Guantanamo should be closed. This is an occasion to reiterate that statement," the European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told reporters on arrival at a meeting of the EU's foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

The Austrian foreign minister, Ursula Plassnik, whose country now holds the EU presidency, said the 25-nation bloc would raise the issue at a meeting next week with President Bush in Vienna.

Last month, Plassnik said Guantanamo was ``an anomaly" and should be shut down as quickly as possible. The European Parliament has called for the camp's closure.

Also yesterday, the United States distanced itself from comments by an administration official that were widely seen as insensitive.

A deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, Colleen Graffy, said on Sunday that the suicides were ``a good PR move".

``I would just point out in public that we do not see it as a PR stunt," said a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack.

Graffy coordinates efforts with a special envoy, Karen Hughes, in a campaign to improve the US image abroad, especially in Islamic countries.

There have been many previous suicide attempts at Guantanamo, where the US military holds 460 foreigners,captured mainly in Afghanistan, during the US-led war there to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Before Saturday, 23 prisoners had tried to kill themselves in 41 suicide attempts at the camp.

In an editorial headlined ``Bad Language," London's right-leaning Times, normally a defender of Britain's alliance with the United States, said rhetoric such as Graffy's ``plays once again into the hands of America's enemies."

Britain has been Washington's closest ally in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Prime Minister Tony Blair has been cautious in criticizing Guantanamo, which he describes as an ``anomaly."

But other senior British officials have called for the closure of the camp, once described by rights groups as the ``gulag of our times."

``If it is perfectly legal and there is nothing going wrong there, why don't they have it in America?" said the British constitutional affairs minister, Harriet Harman.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry named the two Saudis as Manei al-Otaibi and Yasser al-Zahrani but gave no further details. Pentagon documents said that Zahrani was 21, meaning he was sent to Guantanamo as a teen-ager.

The US military identified the Yemeni as Ali Abdullah Ahmed and described all three as ``dangerous enemy combatants."

Saudi newspapers yesterday reported that relatives of the two Saudi detainees who died as saying the men could not have committed suicide because they are strict Muslims.

``I am confident my son did not commit suicide," Talal al-Zahrani, Yasser's father, told one newspaper. ``The story of the US administration is a lie."

Riyadh declined to say if it would ask for an inquiry into the deaths, but he pledged more efforts to bring back all Saudis detained at Guantanamo, estimated at up to 103.

Rights advocates say suicide attempts at Guantanamo are evidence of despair and isolation.

Most prisoners have been held without charges, and face indefinite detention, with none of the rights afforded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, or to suspects in the US system.

``Where we are today is in a situation where we can expect more suicides, where the despair continues," said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

``The interrogation techniques have not changed," Rubenstein said, ``and unless we have a significant profound change in due process and interrogation and in the very existence of Guantanamo, we can expect more."

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