GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba – In a series of disruptions spanning 18 hours across the prison camps here, captives staged suicide attempts and fought U.S. guards with light-bulb shards, broken fans and metal bars they had ripped from their barracks, the U.S. military disclosed Friday.
At one point, to quell a five-minute brawl between 10 detainees and an equal number of soldiers, a U.S. Army rapid strike force fired pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Two other detainees were in comas at the Navy hospital Friday after overdosing on drugs in what commanders characterized as a calculated, coordinated martyrdom mission.
“These are dangerous men and determined jihadists,” declared Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, overall commander of the detention center housing about 460 detainees.
Harris described Thursday’s events as “probably the most violent outbreak” at the Pentagon’s four-year-old offshore interrogation and detention center – and come at a time of increased international pressure on the Bush administration to close this prison complex.
In cascading crises, the tally was two young men in a coma from overdoses of anti-anxiety drugs for which they were not prescribed, 66 captives moved out of medium security barracks into single-occupancy, maximum security cells and a guard force with cuts, scrapes and bruises. By Friday, during several passes around the compounds on the Caribbean, there was no evidence of the disruption – no noise, with guards coming and going as usual.
Trouble began at 6:43 a.m. Thursday when during a prayer call check, guards spotted a young man unconscious in his cell, according to commanders who created a timeline. By 1:25 p.m., a second man was found unconscious – both, commanders here said, from taking an overdose of anti-anxiety pills.
Neither man was prescribed the drug, leading officers here to conclude that captives had colluded and stockpiled them for two men on a martyrdom mission.
Both men had earlier committed hunger strikers, likewise willing to die, ostensibly to embarrass the United States internationally and force Guantanamo’s closure, said Army Col. Mike Bumgarner, chief of detention operations behind the razor wire for more than a year.
In between, two other men appeared ill from overdoses, which officials have since concluded were not suicide attempts. One had a bad reaction to medication, said the admiral, Harris, in a telephone briefing to news reporters off the island. He said the other did not want to die, but was creating a disturbance in sympathy with the plotters.
With two unconscious detainees from Camp 1 tucked away at the Navy hospital here, troubles then began in Camp 4, which has prisoner-of-war-style communal housing.
With 175 captives, it is the Pentagon’s showcase prison camp where captives in white and considered compliant sleep in bunkhouses for 10, and can eat and pray in open yards 20 at a time.
It has a soccer field awaiting Astroturf, exercise bicycles and picnic tables under the watch of a guard tower.
But at 6:35 p.m. a sailor guard spotted a captive stringing up a bed sheet inside one bunkhouse.
Sensing “a ruse,” the commander called out the Quick Reaction Force – an elite, armed force, for the first time ever here, believes Army Col. Mike Bumgarner, chief of detention operations.
When the guards charged inside shouting orders, they slid across excrement, urine and soapy water. Two guards wielding riot shields and batons went down. Armed members crashing in behind them let loose with pepper spray, five shotgun rounds of rubber bullets that unleashed 90 marble-sized pellets and something called a sponge round.
“We had two guards down,” the colonel said. “We were losing the fight at that point.”
The military showed home-made weapons Friday that the military said came from Camp 5 in the melee: a two-foot light bulb, shattered on one end; cameras they had ripped from the walls that monitored their movements; parts of a huge electrical fan, and pieces of the metal barracks building.
Six detainees were treated for minor injuries, Bumgarner said, including an older detainee who got a blast of pepper spray in an adjacent barracks that staged its own disruption around midnight Thursday.
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Detainees ripped closed circuit monitors off the walls. Guards threw a round of pepper gas. The old man collapsed, and was treated on suspicion of a heart attack, which the colonel said it wasn’t.
Several guards suffered “cuts, scrapes, bruises – just like a good football game,” said the Army colonel, who has been in charge of the guards for more than a year.
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No detainee was made available to offer an independent description of the episode; the military also spurned a request by The Miami Herald – the only news outlet on the base Friday – to tour the camps and see the damage or listen to the captives in their cells.
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The Navy admiral said there was not even a hint of the coming disruption on Thursday, which began before dawn with 15 long-held Saudi captives leaving the island for their oil-rich kingdom for further investigation and possible trial.
The night before, to celebrate their departure, the admiral had instructed the chefs to prepare a festive meal – curried chicken, rice, traditional Middle Eastern honey sweets – and serve it in all the camps, where the Saudis who had departed were scattered throughout the prison compounds.
“There was really good feelings. Everybody was pumped because these guys were leaving,” the admiral said. “The guys themselves were pumped because they were leaving.”
Bumgarner attributed the mini-uprising to a belief in the camps that three of captives must die here to incite enough ire against the United States to bring sufficient international condemnation on the United States and lead to the closure of Guantanamo.
Word had already passed through the camp that the detainees knew there were news media on the base to cover the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II.
Harris theorized the joy at the Saudi departure was cover for more long-range, deeper scheming.
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None of the men involved in the disruptions are charged before Military Commissions, Harris said.
Prison officials wouldn’t provide ages or nationalities of the captives involved. Nor would they give their names.
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Harris praised the “heroic” performance of the U.S. military medical and security teams, but said he would review how medication is distributed throughout camps.
Medical staff distribute 1,000 pills a day to 200-300 detainees, ranging from psychiatric drugs to ordinary aspirin and Tylenol.
Thursday’s was the second reported staged suicide spree described by the military at Guantanamo. In January 2005, the military disclosed that more than a year earlier 23 prisoners tried to hang or strangle themselves – 10 on the same day – in a sustained, mass protest at the prison for suspected terrorists.
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