Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Halts Transfer of Al-Qaida Captives

WASHINGTON -- The United States military on Wednesday suspended controversial flights of Afghan war captives to a U.S. base in Cuba to expand jail facilities there and prepare to question the prisoners in the fight against terrorism.

Pentagon officials said controversial flights to Guantanamo Bay Navy base, where 158 al-Qaida and Taliban "detainees" are already held in guarded 2.5 meter-by-2.5 meter cage-like outdoor cells, could resume next week.

A spokesman at the U.S. Military's Southern Command headquarters in Miami told reporters that initial interrogation of the captives would begin soon and that government officials were deciding how to do it and how agencies would use the information in the United States' war on terrorism.

The move came amid harsh criticism of treatment of the detainees as captured U.S. 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 Californian, who goes by his mother's name, left Afghanistan on a military cargo jet Tuesday and was expected to land at Dulles International Airport later Wednesday. He was expected to be escorted to a detention center by U.S. marshals and appear before a federal magistrate as early as Thursday.

Civil-rights groups and some foreign lawmakers have criticized treatment of detainees on flights to Guantanamo Bay and at the base as well as the U.S. refusal to designate them as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

U.S. Defense 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.

"Our position is very clear -- that the prisoners must be treated humanely and in accordance with internationally accepted norms. And we expect that to be done," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters.

Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the Southern Command, said Wednesday that questioning of the captives had not begun yet and that a government task force was determining how best to get and coordinate information to halt possible future strikes following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

Officials at the Pentagon said the Guantanamo flights, which have transported groups of up to 30 prisoners at a time, 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.

The spotlight in Washington was on Walker, captured in Afghanistan on Dec. 1 and charged Jan. 15 with conspiring to kill U.S. nationals in the Afghanistan war and with providing support to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment.

In an unusual, hourlong briefing for reporters Tuesday, Rumsfeld defended treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

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.