U.S. in Talks to Return Scores Held at Base


WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 - Senior Defense Department officials said Sunday that the military may soon release to their home countries scores of detainees, perhaps more than 100, who are being held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

One senior official said negotiations were under way with the home nations of dozens of the detainees over the terms of transferring custody from the United States military to their home governments and eventual repatriation.

"We've identified a number that we think could be released to their home or host countries," one senior Pentagon official said. "We are negotiating with these countries" over the specific terms under which the prisoners might be transferred to the custody of their home countries.

The negotiations, a second senior official said, have been over issues like whether the detainees will be freed once they return home or just reimprisoned locally.

The first official declined to give the exact number being considered for release and cautioned that no final decisions had been made.

The possibility of an impending large-scale release from Guantánamo - which currently houses about 660 prisoners, most of whom were captured during and after the Afghan war - was first reported by Time Magazine. Time quoted American officials as saying that some of the detainees being considered for release had been captured by Afghan warlords and sold for the bounty offered by Washington for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The detention of people captured in Afghanistan has been a major irritant in relations between the United States and several of its allies. The captives are being held at a prison facility at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, on the southeastern tip of Cuba, and have remained in legal and political limbo for nearly two years. The issue of those captives was a major item on the agenda when President Bush conferred in London recently with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Nine Britons are detained at Guantánamo, and the British government - which has faced public pressure over the situation - has sought a series of concessions.

The United States has declined to give the detainees access to lawyers, and it has not charged any of them with crimes. Officials have said the detainees were not entitled to formal prisoner-of-war status, which would carry such rights, because they were "illegal combatants." The officials have said that when the men were captured they were not adhering to some requirements of the Geneva Conventions, like wearing clearly marked uniforms.

Those arguments by the United States have not proved persuasive with its allies.

In a speech last Tuesday, one of Britain's most senior judges, Johan Steyn, offered a scathing criticism of the United States' continued detention of prisoners at Guantánamo, the latest of several protests from top international lawyers.

"The question is whether the quality of justice envisaged for the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay complies with the minimum international standards for the conduct of fair trials," Lord Steyn said. "The answer can be given quite shortly. It is a resounding, `No.' " The speech was notable because it is extraordinary for sitting judges to comment directly on current situations.

He also said that "authoritarian regimes with dubious human rights records" have seized upon Washington's example to justify their own improper behavior.

While a large release of detainees from Guantánamo could lessen some of the international criticism, it might also provide support for those who have said the United States held the prisoners for a long time with no evidence of any wrongdoing.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that military officials have been trying to determine which prisoners should face charges before military commissions.