Tipton detainees were captured on botched aid mission

Released British men tell of beatings, solitary confinement and threats to try to make them confess

Three Britons held at Guantanamo Bay as alleged Taliban terrorists were captured in northern Afghanistan after trying to mount a botched aid mission to help Afghan civilians, The Independent on Sunday has been told.

The revelation came as the three men known as the "Tipton Three" spoke out for the first time last night. Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed claimed to have been beaten at Guantanamo Bay and to have been interrogated 200 times each. They told two newspapers yesterday:

* They were kicked and beaten on several occasions by American troops.

* That the FBI tried to have them sign a piece of paper when they were released, admitting links with terrorism.

* That they were kept for three months in solitary confinement in Guantanamo Bay after other inmates made false accusations about them. They falsely confessed to being at a meeting between Osama bin Laden and 11 September hijacker Mohammed Atta under relentless interrogation.

* That other British inmates Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi were in a special super-maximum security facility known as Camp Echo in Camp Delta.

The story of the three men, all close friends from the small Midlands town of Tipton, emerged following their release last Tuesday after 26 months being held at the American detention camp in at the US Navy base in Cuba.

Mr Rasul, Mr Iqbal and Mr Ahmed claim they had crossed into northern Afghanistan from Pakistan in late October 2001 to take food and money to villagers caught up in the allies' war with the Taliban. Instead, they found themselves swept up with refugees and Taliban forces retreating under attack from US and Northern Alliance troops, and became trapped in the Taliban's northern stronghold of Kunduz. By mid-November, the city was under siege by General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Northern Alliance forces and being targeted by US Air Force carpet-bombing.

When Kunduz fell on 23 November, the three were among about 8,000 Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance. As clean-shaven foreigners unable to speak the local languages, they stood out, and were assumed to be "foreign fighters". Gareth Peirce, their solicitor, said this was untrue. She said: "They want everyone to know that they weren't fighting, they weren't combatants and they weren't armed. They were never near a battlefield ­ they were trapped in Kunduz when it was besieged."

The men, along with 3,000 captives, were taken to the Alliance's notorious prison at Shebarghan, close to Mazar-e-Sharif ­ crammed into unventilated container lorries. It is alleged that the other 5,000 prisoners died of asphyxiation on board those lorries, or were executed or died from their wounds.

Asif Iqbal said: "They'd herded maybe 300 of us into each container, packed in so tightly our knees were against our chests and almost immediately we started to suffocate. We lived because someone made holes with a machine gun, though they were shooting low and still more died from the bullets. When we got out, about 20 in each container were still alive."

In the Alliance's prison, up to 110 men were housed in cells designed for 15 prisoners, or herded into corridors, in conditions that were condemned by US human rights experts and the International Committee of the Red Cross as "deplorable".

Doctors with the American organisation Physicians for Human Rights discovered that dysentery, jaundice, stomach disorders and pneumonia were rife in the jail. All the prisoners were malnourished, freezing and severely dehydrated, with scores dying from lack of medical care.

The three Britons were interviewed by the ICRC at the jail in late December and the Foreign Office was given their details. US special forces also arrived at Shebarghan at that time to weed out the Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders and foreign fighters they wanted to take away for interrogation.

By 14 January 2002, the American units had left Shebarghan with dozens of prisoners, including the three from Tipton. They were taken to the US base at Kandahar, interrogated, and then flown in shackles to Camp X-Ray, the first detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Ahmed described an interrogations at the hands of MI5 at gunpoint before they left Afghanistan. Mr Ahmed said "The MI5 says: ... we've got your name, we've got your passport, we know you've been funded by an extremist group and we know you've been to this mosque in Birmingham. We've got photos of you." But Mr Ahmed said the claims were untrue.

When they arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Mr Ahmed said he was kicked, beaten and called "traitor" when a guard realised he could speak English. He claimed he was given isolation in the camp on one occasion for writing "have a nice day" on a polystyrene cup.

Of their regular interviews with intelligence officials, Mr Rasul said: "They kept [saying] 'this guy says you've done this, that guy says you've done that' ­ what they meant was that other detainees desperate to get out were making allegations, making stuff up they thought would help get them out of the camp."

After three months in solitary confinement Mr Rasul said he falsely admitted to having been on a videotape of a meeting between Atta and bin Laden out of desperation that he could not convince the Americans he was in Britain at the time. "I'd got to the point where I could not take it any more. 'Do what you have to do', I told them. I'd been sitting there for three months in isolation so I said 'yes it's me. Go ahead put me on trial'." MI5 later established the trio had been in Britain when the meeting was held so the men were cleared of the allegation.

Another British detainee released last Tuesday, Jamal al-Harith, has made more allegations about mistreatment and beatings by the American troops. In an unbroadcast section of an interview for ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald, shown on Friday night, Mr Harith said the three Tipton men were treated worse than him in Kandahar. At Guantanamo Bay, the British detainees were separated, Mr Harith said, and the three Tipton men were nicknamed "The Beatles" by US guards.