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Guantanamo hunger strike stems from frustration: U.S. general

Guantanamo prisoners are frustrated by the government's failure to close the detention camp and have launched a growing hunger strike to "turn the heat up," an American general told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

"They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed. They were devastated apparently ... when the president backed off, at least (that's) their perception, of closing the facility," Marine Corps General John Kelly told the House Armed Services Committee in Washington.

Kelly took over in November as head of the military's Southern Command in Miami, which oversees the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Twenty-four Guantanamo captives were on a hunger strike and eight of them had lost enough weight that doctors were force-feeding them liquid nutrients thorough tubes inserted into their noses and down their stomachs, Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman at the detention camp, told Reuters. Two were hospitalized with dehydration, he said.

Kelly attributed the hunger strike to frustration among the 166 Guantanamo prisoners, who were captured in overseas counterterrorism operations after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Nearly all have been held for 11 years without charge, and half have been cleared for transfer or release.

Upon taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the detention camp closed within a year, but Congress has blocked administration efforts to shut it down and made it increasingly difficult to resettle Guantanamo prisoners.

Obama did not mention Guantanamo in his January inaugural speech or his February state-of-the-union address, which some of the prisoners watched on television. In January, the State Department office charged with resettling Guantanamo prisoners was closed.

"So that has caused them to become frustrated and they want to get this, I think turn the heat up, get it back in the media," Kelly told lawmakers. "And we know that because they talk to us. We have actually a fairly positive relationship down there with most of the detainees."

The number of hunger strikers has grown from 14 on Friday, Durand said. The military counts prisoners as hunger strikers if they have skipped at least nine consecutive meals.

Many of the Guantanamo prisoners are Yemenis whom the United States will not repatriate at this time because of instability in that country.

Guantanamo Costs

The United States spends $114 million a year to run the Guantanamo prison, or about $687,747 per prisoner, according to the Government Accountability Office. That is about 20 times what the Bureau of Prisons spends per inmate to run its high-security prisons.

"President Obama is at a fork in the road. He can invest in Guantanamo or invest in justice," said Zeke Johnson, head of Amnesty International's Security with Human Rights Campaign.

"Why throw more money down the drain on a mission that has already failed? Instead of justice for the 9/11 attacks, Guantanamo has brought us torture, indefinite detention, unfair trials and hunger strikes."

Periodic hunger strikes have occurred since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002.

More than 50 lawyers representing the prisoners sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week urging him to help end the current hunger strike. They said the participants' health had deteriorated alarmingly, and that some had lost more than 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms).

They said more than 100 detainees began a widescale hunger strike early last month to protest the confiscation of letters, photographs and legal mail, and the rough handling of Korans during searches of their cells.

Durand called the allegations "outright falsehoods and gross exaggerations."

"The claims of a mass hunger strike and an incident in which the Koran was mishandled are simply untrue," he said. "We take extraordinary care to respect the Koran and categorically deny any claims of abuse, desecration or mishandling."

[Source: By Jane Sutton and David Alexander, Reuters, Miami and Washington, 20Mar13]

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