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Saudis Want Detainees Turned Over

Shackled Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners in orange jumpsuits, sit in holding area, Guantanamo, photo
AP
So far, U.S. officials have steadfastly refused to identity by name or nationality the 158 men locked up at the American Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Monday, Saudi Arabia claimed that nearly two-thirds of them were Saudi citizens – and the Saudis want them back, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

Although acknowledging that the men were captured during fighting inside Afghanistan, Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters, "The issue of prisoners is important to us and we ask that they be handed over to us so we can interrogate them."

But they're important to us, too, responded President Bush, who met at the White House with the new leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

"We'll make a decision on a case-by-case basis as to whether they go back to Saudi Arabia or not. I appreciate his suggestion," said Mr. Bush.

And Pentagon officials made it clear they're in no hurry to return the Saudis.

"We have no desire to hold on to large numbers of detainees of any kind for any great length of time. But we want to make sure these people are not back out on the streets," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

She said the nationalities of all the prisoners' had not yet been determined. U.S. officials have said they are considering sending some of the prisoners to their homelands on condition their governments punish them. Some may be tried by the United States for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorism.

Asked about handing over Saudi citizens, Clarke said prisoners would be repatriated to "those countries that we feel will handle them appropriately."

Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally in the Middle East, has come under criticism in the United States from some who say the Saudi government has done too little to crack down on terrorists and extremists within its borders.

Click Here for Complete CoverageFifteen of the 19 hijackers of the passenger jets that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 were Saudis, according to U.S. officials. Saudi officials insist no Saudi involvement has been proven. Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida terror network is accused in the Sept. 11 attacks, was a Saudi national until his citizenship was revoked in the 1990s.

Saudi Arabia's southern neighbor, Yemen, has said it was also seeking information from the United States on 17 of its nationals it says are being held at the Guantanamo base.

At the White House, meanwhile, Mr. Bush said he is weighing legal questions on whether the Geneva Convention applies to the 158 suspected terrorists being held in Cuba. He pledged to treat them humanely, but said: "These are killers."

Mr. Bush and his national security advisers failed to resolve the issue at a Monday morning meeting, but said they agree that the detainees will nt be considered prisoners of war, which could confer on them an array of rights.

"We are not going to call them prisoners of war," said Mr. Bush, who three times called them "prisoners" and then corrected himself to refer to them as "detainees."

"And the reason why is al-Qaida is not a known military," Mr. Bush said. "These are killers, these are terrorists, they know no countries. The only thing they know about country is when they find a country that's been weakened and they want to occupy it like a parasite."

Mr. Bush said he will listen to "all the legalisms, and announce my decision when I make it."

Some in the administration argue that the convention should apply. Others, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, believe that whether it applies is irrelevant because the al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners are "unlawful combatants" and therefore not deserving of prisoner-of-war status.

Regardless of the outcome of the debate over the Geneva Convention, the president and his national security aides are agreed that the prisoners are not POWs.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush's team agrees that the "core principles" of the convention should be observed, including providing food and medicine to the detainees. However, the national security team is split on whether the detainees are covered under the full weight of the Geneva Conventions, Fleischer said.

He said the conventions must be "interpreted in a modern light," now that the country is at war with terrorists. He added that the detainees were "lucky to be in the custody of our military because they're receiving three square meals a day."

"They're receiving health care that they've never received before, their sleeping conditions are probably better than anything they've had in Afghanistan, and they're being treated well because they're in the hands of the men and women of our military, and they're being treated well because that's what Americans do," Fleischer said.

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