SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – A Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay has died of an apparent suicide, U.S. military officials announced Tuesday.

The Joint Task Force that runs the U.S. prison in Cuba said guards found Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih unresponsive and not breathing in his cell Monday night.

His is the fifth apparent suicide at the Guantanamo prison, which President Barack Obama plans to close by January.

In a statement issued from Miami, the U.S. military said the detainee was pronounced dead by a doctor after “extensive lifesaving measures had been exhausted.”

The Yemeni prisoner, also known as Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al-Hanashi, had been held without charge at Guantanamo since February 2002. Military records show the alleged Taliban fighter was about 31.

The suicide occurred late Monday, but it was not revealed by the military until after a dozen journalists who were covering a military tribunal session left the base near midday Tuesday. A Defense Department official said the reason was that the Yemen government had not yet been notified.

About 100 of the 240 prisoners at Guantanamo are from Yemen, more than from any other nation. Some of the Yemenis at Guantananmo have been approved for release from the prison for several years but they are in limbo because the U.S. is unwilling to release prisoners to Yemen, fearing the weak central government there will be unable to monitor and control them.

The prisoner appears to have joined the long-running hunger strike at Guantanamo, according to medical records previously released by the military in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press.

His weight was down to about 86 pounds (39 kilograms) in December 2005. He weighed 124 pounds (56 kilograms) when he was first taken to Guantanamo in February 2002.

A prison spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, confirmed the incident but declined to discuss further details on how the Yemeni man apparently committed suicide and whether any family members have been contacted.

DeWalt declined to say whether procedures have changed at the prison as a result of the apparent suicide. He said al-Hanashi was being held in Camp Delta – a prison complex behind tall fences and coils of razor wire.

Guantanamo critics said the death underscores the urgent need to close the U.S. prison as soon as possible.

“This kind of desperation is caused by the uncertainty of not knowing whether one will ever be released or even charged,” said Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

Obama has pledged to close the prison but maintain the controversial military tribunal system to try at least some Guantanamo detainees. Eleven detainees are facing charges, including five men accused of organizing the Sept. 11 attacks.

Scott Allen, senior medical officer for Physicians For Human Rights, an international medical group, said the apparent suicide was likely an act of desperation by the longtime detainee.

“Suicides are often a reflection of a detainee’s sense of futility and helplessness in prolonged detention,” Allen said during a telephone interview from Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military says the remains will be autopsied by a pathologist from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has launched an investigation of the incident to determine the cause and manner surrounding the Yemeni’s death.

The Joint Task Force added that the remains are being treated with “utmost respect.”

“A cultural advisor is assisting the Joint Task Force to ensure that the remains are handled in a culturally sensitive and religiously appropriate manner,” the JTF said.

U.S. authorities say Al-Hanashi traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 and allegedly admitted to fighting with the Taliban on the front lines. He lived in four different al-Qaida and Taliban-affiliated guest houses, and was captured at Mazar-e-Sharif following the uprising there, they said.

AP-ES-06-02-09 1748EDT

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