HAVANA -- American activists camping out at a Cuban military checkpoint outside the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay started their first day of a water-only fast yesterday to protest the treatment of suspected terrorists detained at the base.
Members of Witness Against Torture are demanding access to the camp to meet with inmates. The activists arrived late Sunday at the checkpoint, which is about 5 miles from the US base, after a five-day march from the eastern Cuba city of Santiago.
''We can see the windmills of the US base, we can see some lights off in the distance," Frida Berrigan, 31, said during an interview via her cellphone.
''We're not right next door, but we are closer to these prisoners than their family members have been since they were arrested."
Berrigan is the daughter of the late Philip Berrigan, a former Roman Catholic priest whose protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons helped ignite a generation of antiwar dissent. The Witness Against Torture organization says it follows a Christian tradition of nonviolence.
Stacey Byington, a civilian spokeswoman for the US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, said those inside the facility could not see the protesters and only knew of their presence through media reports.
''Day-to-day activities of the base and its residents are not affected," Byington said in an e-mail message to The Associated Press, adding that access to the base is limited to those with official or authorized business.
The Guantanamo detention center has become a symbol of the controversy over the treatment of suspected terrorists held by the US military, with 32 prisoners on a hunger strike to protest what they say are cruel and inhumane conditions. Of the protesting prisoners, 25 are being fed through tubes.
US officials insist that the hundreds of prisoners held at Guantanamo, a remote base on Cuba's eastern tip, are being treated humanely. The government says they are enemy combatants, not prisoners of war, and are not entitled to the rights afforded under the Geneva Conventions.
The prisoners' hunger strike is part of what inspired the 25 American activists to travel to Navy base. They ate their last meal Sunday night before hunkering down in tents outside the checkpoint, which is on the edge of a miles-wide Cuban military zone, peppered with mines, that surrounds the US installation. They say they will stay there up to a week.
Last week, the State Department issued a statement scolding the group for not focusing on rights abuses in Cuba.
''These protesters, as they march through Cuba, are ignoring one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and its systematic and institutionalized violations of human rights," the statement said. ''They have not acknowledged the nearly 300 peaceful dissidents who today are languishing in Cuban jails under horrific conditions."
During their 66-mile march from Santiago, the activists slept in backyards and at farms, and drew a positive reaction from local residents, Berrigan said.