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Obama pledges new push to shut Guantanamo Bay

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

US President Barck Obama is pledging a new effort to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, describing the facility in Cuba as harmful to US interests and a blight on the country's good name.

At the White House yesterday, Mr Obama said he had ordered officials to review the issue and that he would take it up, once more, with Congress.

The prison was "contrary to who we are . . . it was inefficient, and reduced co-operation with allies on counter-terrorism," he said.

"It is a recruitment tool for extremists, it needs to be closed," he added.

Guantanamo prison was opened at a military base in 2002, the site chosen so that foreign terror suspects could be held outside the US proper, and thus beyond the purview of the domestic judicial system.

Former US President George W Bush wanted to close it, and Mr Obama came to office in January 2009 vowing to do so within a year.

But his every effort to make good on his word, by transferring detainees to the US and trying them in the civilian courts, was thwarted by Congress.

At the same time, the repatriation of inmates ground to a halt amid the difficulty of finding countries acceptable to the US willing to take them.

This year the pent-up tensions exploded in a hunger strike, the longest and most widespread in Guantanamo's history.

It began in February, ostensibly after guards mishandled prisoners' Korans. However, the underlying reason, according to prisoners and their lawyers, was despair.

The last straw appears to have been the US State Department announcement in January that it was "re-assigning" the official who had been handling the transfers, without replacing him.

The hunger strike has now spread to more than 100 of the 166 inmates, at least 15 of which are now being force-fed.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama, who has said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would mark an unacceptable escalation of the country's long-running civil war, also said yesterday that the United States must be more certain of all the facts before he decides on how the country will intervene in the conflict.

The president said, however, that if it is determined that the al-Assad regime used chemical weapons, "we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us."

(© Independent News Services)

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