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Bush rejects Merkel's request to close Guantanamo prison

WASHINGTON -- President Bush rejected a suggestion by Germany's new leader that the United States close its prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying after a first meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday that the facility is ''a necessary part of protecting the American people."

Guantanamo has become a symbol in Europe for what many people see as the Bush administration's excesses in hunting down and interrogating potential terrorists. At least one German is among about 500 foreign-born men held indefinitely at the prison camp on Cuba's eastern tip.

''So long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm," Bush said at a White House news conference with Merkel.

The United States says the detainees are suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda operatives or soldiers, but lawyers and rights groups say many were nonviolent victims of circumstance.

Yesterday Bush and Merkel both had tough warnings for Iran regarding its nuclear brinksmanship. ''We will not be intimidated by a country such as Iran," Merkel said. She also condemned statements by Iran's leader challenging Israel's right to exist.

The two leaders seemed determined to get off to a good start after chilly relations between Washington and Berlin under Merkel's predecessor, staunch Iraq war opponent Gerhard Schroeder. Their discussions also included Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans.

Bush was fulsome in his praise of Merkel. She smiled, but showed she is no pushover. Both she and Bush called their 45-minute, one-on-one session ''candid." This is diplomatic code for a meeting with real debate and differences.

''We also openly addressed that there sometimes have been differences of opinion," Merkel told reporters. ''I mentioned Guantanamo in this respect."

Merkel said last week that while she thinks the prison should not remain open indefinitely, she did not plan to demand its closure when she met with Bush.

''We addressed this issue openly," Merkel said, ''and I think it's, after all, only one facet in our overall fight against terrorism."

That is a fight Merkel said Germany agrees is vital, although ''there may sometimes be differences as to the acuteness of that danger . . . and how we face up to this threat."

Of the roughly 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries. Only nine detainees have been charged with a crime, and their cases are to go before special military tribunals, which some lawyers say lack basic legal protections for defendants.

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