Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has firmly ruled out prisoner-of-war status for any of the suspected al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on Cuba after Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, joined the debate on the detainees' status.
General Powell is reported to be pressing the Bush administration to make a formal declaration of adherence to the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of men held in Afghanistan and Cuba.
What was not immediately clear was whether his call, which followed an international outcry over perceived American arrogance in its handling of prisoners and the terms of their detention in open-air cages, marked a rift within the administration or was a face-saving proposal intended to repair some of the damage done to America's image abroad.
The White House ruled 10 days ago that the captured men were not prisoners of war and therefore not fully protected by the terms of the Geneva Conventions.
Mr Rumsfeld, who arrived yesterday on his first visit to the detention facility in Cuba known as Camp X-Ray, stressed there was "no ambiguity", saying: "They are not PoWs. They will not be determined to be PoWs." The Bush administration has so far labelled the detainees "unlawful combatants".
According to reports of General Powell's proposal, the Secretary of State did not believe the detainees should be considered prisoners of war the Geneva Conventions lay down criteria that the men clearly do not meet but he wanted to find some form of action that would make clear that the United States was abiding by international law. That might take the form of a declaration, or it might go further and involve some kind of judicial review.
The National Security Council (NSC) is expected to take up the issue today, after the submission of Mr Powell's proposals and a number of responses from other senior cabinet members.
A congressional delegation visited Guantanamo Bay on Friday, and several visitors vigorously defended the prisoners' treatment. Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said: "[They] should not be afforded the comforts or the protections of the Geneva Convention. They don't represent a country. They don't represent a military unit.
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