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Detainees scheduled to arrive in Cuba

Hooded al Qaeda and Taliban captives cross the tarmac at Kandahar's airport on Thursday.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Twenty al Qaeda and Taliban fighters -- sedated, hooded and chained -- were scheduled to arrive Friday at a makeshift prison at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The detainees boarded a transport plane at a U.S. base in southern Afghanistan late Thursday for the flight to Cuba.

The humanitarian group Amnesty International issued a statement Thursday afternoon objecting to the heavy restraints used on the prisoners during the flight.

About 15 minutes after the C-17 carrying the prisoners took off from Kandahar International Airport, small-arms fire was heard from outside the airport perimeter. Marines answered with M-16 rifles and machine guns.

Two Marine Cobra helicopters lifted off as tracer fire crisscrossed the north end of the airfield. The gunfire lasted about five minutes.

"I won't say that something necessarily went wrong, but rather we had some folks probe our lines. Quite simply, this is a large piece of ground to defend," a Marine spokesman said.

Hundreds of captured al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are expected to be housed at a specially designed facility at a U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. CNN's Bob Franken reports (January 11)

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CNN's Mark Potter looks at the history of the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and its latest role in housing al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners (January 10)

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Snipers had penetrated the airport's outer perimeter in possibly three areas and fired toward the northwest side of the runway from surrounding mountains, said Marine spokesman Lt. James Jarvis.

"This is a very large area to defend," Jarvis said, noting that people traveling on foot could get into small-arms range.

U.S. Special Forces and U.S. Marines scoured the perimeter of Kandahar airport Friday.

U.S. Marines and soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division guard the interior of the air base; the area outside is the responsibility of anti-Taliban troops.

Military officials described the departure of the detainees as orderly and said it may serve as a trial run for later detainee transfers.

Troops led the prisoners, wearing hoods and orange jumpsuits and watched by guard dogs, onto the tarmac of Kandahar's airport and into the C-17 around 8:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. ET).

The detainees were chained to their seats for the 8,000-mile trip and even barred from using the toilets, with special provisions being made so they would not have to get up. They were shaved from head to toe for hygiene considerations.

The flight, excluding a scheduled stopover and possible transfer to another plane at an undisclosed location, was scheduled to take 20 hours.

"They are fully aware that these are dangerous individuals," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday, noting the military was authorized and instructed to use "appropriate restraint."

U.S. forces are still holding 331 detainees at the Kandahar airport; 45 of those were brought in Wednesday night.

Gen. Tommy Franks, in an interview with CNN's Aaron Brown, said U.S. authorities are learning a lot from the detainees.

"What we can gain from the intelligence that we get from these detainees is about what the structure of al Qaeda is," Franks said. "How are they trained? How long are they trained? Where are they exposed? And, if you take the snippets that I've just described and put them together, then one would expect that you'll put yourself in a position to be able to predict terrorist activity."

Amnesty International criticizes Pentagon

Amnesty International's statement said "all those in U.S. custody must be treated humanely, with full respect for international standards."

"Reports that al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners may be drugged, hooded and shackled during the 20-hour flight is worrying," the group said.

"If restraints are necessary, they must be applied humanely, with adequate opportunity for the prisoner to move limbs, use the bathroom and eat and drink."

In a letter sent to Rumsfeld this week, Amnesty International also objected to the conditions in Cuba, where each detainee will initially stay in an outdoor cell with a wooden ceiling and sides made of chain-link fence until the construction of a detention facility is completed.

The Guantanamo base can currently house 100 prisoners but soon will accommodate 2,000.

Some of the prisoners taken to Guantanamo likely will face a military tribunal, a prospect that has generated criticism from civil rights advocates.

Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey said federal courts have ruled that anyone held at Guantanamo has no constitutional rights, such as the right to legal counsel and others given to criminal defendants.

All the detainees are being treated as if they were prisoners of war, although they have not been declared as such under the Geneva Convention, according to officials.

In 1994, tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian emigrants were held at the base after being picked up while trying to sail to Florida.


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