Bush applies Geneva accords to Taliban

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President George Bush grudgingly accepted yesterday that the protection of the Geneva Conventions should apply to Taliban detainees held by America – but insisted they would not receive prisoner-of-war status.

The partial turn-around followsinternational criticism about the way the US has dealt with the prisoners, both at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan. At the moment 158 men, including three Britons, are being held at Camp X-Ray on a US naval base in Cuba.

But while Mr Bush's announcement was seen as a clear shift in position, the administration said it would not change the day-to-day conditions of the prisoners. Aides made clear that the President did not think the Geneva Conventions should apply to al-Qa'ida prisoners. Mr Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: "Al-Qa'ida is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention."

Despite initial concerns about the conditions at Guantanamo Bay, most observers now accept that the prisoners' physical situation is reasonable. The outstanding issue has been their legal status.

The White House said that by stopping short of conferring prisoner-of-war status on the detainees, they would not receive the legal protection that would have allowed them to limit their responses under interrogation.

While there is little doubt Mr Bush has taken into account the strength of international concern, he has also acted to protect the rights of US soldiers who might be captured in operations overseas. Both the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had asked the President to review the status of the prisoners.

The new policy does not come without problems. One issue is how to differentiate between Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. There was a fair degree of overlap between the two forces. The administration will also have to decide whether the Taliban prisoners are eligible for a daily stipend, as set out by the Geneva Conventions.

Legal observers said the change in policy might allow the Taliban fighters to appeal for prisoner-of-war status. It might also mean the Taliban prisoners could not be tried by military tribunal and that if the US decided to prosecute them it would have to place them before a court martial, which provides a suspect with greater rights of appeal.