updated 10/12/2006 7:22:40 PM ET 2006-10-12T23:22:40

The Red Cross met at Guantanamo Bay with 14 new “high-value detainees,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday.

The encounters apparently mark the first time the 14 detainees have met with anyone other than their captors since they were arrested, held in CIA custody at secret locations and transferred weeks ago to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Among them are the alleged architects of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Simon Schorno, spokesman in Washington for the International Committee of the Red Cross, declined to discuss specifics or even confirm the encounters had taken place. In meetings with prisoners, Red Cross officials explain that they are visiting as monitors.

“The detainee is not forced to speak to us,” Schorno said. “It is up to the detainee to raise any issues that fall within our concern, for example past detentions and current conditions. It’s up to the detainee to address whatever he wants to address.”

The Red Cross also can take messages the prisoners write, subject to military censorship, for delivery to their families, he said.

U.K. secretary speaks
But even as the Red Cross wrapped up a more than two-week visit to Guantanamo Bay, the prison came under increasing criticism.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, releasing Britain’s annual report on human rights around the world, said holding hundreds of terrorist suspects at the camp for years was “unacceptable in terms of human rights” and “ineffective in terms of counterterrorism.”

“It’s widely argued now that the existence of the camp is as much a radicalizing and discrediting influence as it is a safeguard for security,” she said.

Beckett was the highest-ranking British official to criticize the United States so directly for holding suspects for years without trial at Guantanamo. Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone no further in public than calling the camp an “anomaly” which sooner or later must end.

U.S. State Department reaction
In response to Beckett’s comments, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, said: “Look, we don’t want Guantanamo open forever. We don’t want to be the world’s jailers. We certainly would look forward to the day when Guantanamo is closed.

“At the moment, it’s housing some very dangerous people, including those who were responsible for the attack on this country which killed 3,000 people.”

The Red Cross, which arrived at Guantanamo Bay on Sept. 25, met the 14 newest detainees this week, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said at the Pentagon.

Mohammed was believed to be the No. 3 al-Qaida leader before he was captured in Pakistan in 2003. Also among the 14 new detainees are Ramzi Binalshibh, who is accused of helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks and being a lead operative for a foiled plot to crash aircraft into London’s Heathrow Airport, and Abu Zubaydah, who was believed to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many al-Qaida cells before he was captured in Pakistan in 2002.

President Bush on Sept. 6 announced they had been moved from CIA custody to Guantanamo for trial.

The prisoners reportedly underwent coercive interrogations while being held by the CIA. Bush declined to disclose the techniques but denied they constituted torture.

440 remain
With the repatriation Thursday of 17 prisoners — all but one of them Afghan — there are currently some 440 detainees at Guantanamo, said Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman.

Most of the 16 released Afghans were innocent and had been turned in to the U.S. military by other Afghans because of personal disputes, said Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, head of Afghanistan’s reconciliation commission. Many had been held for four years, he said.

One of the released prisoners, Sayed Mohammead Ali Shah, said he had been a delegate at the country’s first loya jirga, a council of leaders that helped establish the interim government in 2002 after the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001.

“For four years they put me in jail in Cuba for nothing,” said Shah, a doctor from the eastern province of Paktia whose hands shook when he spoke.

“All these people (the other prisoners) and all those Afghans still in Cuba, they are innocent,” he told reporters. “All were arrested because of false reports, and the Americans, without investigating, they arrested innocent people and put them in jail for a long time.”

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