Forces at Guantanamo readied to assist Haiti quake victims

Miami HeraldJanuary 22, 2010 

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A dirt lot behind the war court the Bush administration built is now a landing zone. If the Cuban government agrees, U.S. military helicopters could ferry relief supplies straight into Haiti, a 170-mile dash directly over Cuban soil.

Relief flights now land night and day at the base runway, cargo planes and helicopters shuttling between here, Port-au-Prince and a Navy armada helping Haiti from the sea.

Friday was meant to be a bittersweet date -- President Barack Obama's missed one-year deadline to empty the Pentagon prison camps of the last 195 or so war-on-terror captives. In its place, there was an air of elation and purpose that the military at Guantánamo was helping out in an unambiguously good assignment.

`GRATIFYING'

``You see the look, the smile on a parent's face if you ease the suffering of an injured child, that's more exhilarating at the moment than walking the block in a detention camp,'' said Rear Adm. Thomas Copeman, the prison camps' commander. ``Not to say that walking the block is not an extremely important mission for the United States. But probably not as gratifying as saving somebody's life.''

Helping Haiti is the latest assignment for this 45-square-mile outpost better known for the prison-camps controversies and the Hollywood hit, A Few Good Men, set in the Cold War. In that drama, the Cubans were the enemies across the 17.4-mile minefield that divides the two sides. This time, Havana swiftly approved medical evacuation flights straight through Cuban airspace to Miami for U.S. victims evacuated from Haiti.

Now, the Cuban government has provisionally approved U.S. military relief flights straight to Haiti rather than continue to zig-zag around Cuban soil, said Navy Capt. Steve Blaisdell, the base commander. The Federal Aviation Administration, he said, is ironing out the agreement.

``Clearly Haiti has eclipsed everything else in the short term,'' said Blaisdell, `` . . . independent of any other things that are swirling around.''

TENT CITY RISES

Meantime, a tent city that could house 12,000 or more migrants is slowly rising in case any Haitians are intercepted off their shore -- and can't be immediately repatriated. The Department of Homeland Security and a troop force from the U.S. Army South in San Antonio would handle an influx.

But, the U.S. Coast Guard says photos of Haitians taking to rafts so far are victims sailing away from the earthquake-stricken capitol for safe haven in rural portions of the country.

To keep it that way, the U.S. has sent the Navy -- a floating hospital, the USNS Comfort, and triage and treatment centers aboard the USS Bataan and carrier Carl Vinson, to handle casualties at sea, close to home, and stem an exodus. Here, troop rotations continue. But family visits are canceled to make space for troops and federal agents.

The prisoners, who are forbidden to speak to reporters, learned long ago from news reports that the closure deadline would be missed -- and, staff say, more recently saw protesters in orange jumpsuits from London to Washington condemn the United States as the prison camps entered their ninth year, on Jan. 11.

They learned of the earthquake in Haiti the same way and discovered live -- on al Jazeera's English-language network -- that Cuba was under a tsunami watch that included the clifftop prison camps on the Caribbean's edge.

``They asked, `Where's the manual? What are our instructions?,' '' said Zaki, a Muslim-American who acts as intermediary between the military and detainees as the prison camps' cultural advisor.

He predicted that the missed closure date would pass like any other Friday prayer day, because 70 percent of the captives live in communal, POW-style confinement and about half have received notice that they're cleared to leave -- once the United States negotiates their repatriations or new countries to settle them.

Moreover, he said, while some detainees were gleeful when they heard a Nigerian man tried to blow up an American passenger airliner on Christmas Day, they soon realized that failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's supposed links to a former detainee likely slowed any release plans underway.

``They constantly watch the news. They know more than I do,'' said Petty Officer Bradley Golden, 23, a southern Californian and Navy air traffic control specialist who does Camp 6 guard duty.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

For now, the prison camps are on a business-as-usual footing because Congress has so far thwarted the president's plan for closure with intelligence reporting requirements, blocked funding and a ban on most transfers to U.S. soil.

Civil liberties groups this week marked the missed closure with a series of protests and advertising campaigns.

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