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UN specialists seek US detention spots

Defense Dept. notes locations

VIENNA -- UN human-rights specialists have started questioning former terrorist suspects released from US detention as they investigate prison conditions and allegations that some people are being held in secret locations, a top UN official said yesterday.

Manfred Nowak, the UN's expert on torture, said some undeclared holding areas could include US ships in international waters. He said there were serious allegations to that effect from Amnesty International and other non-governmental human-rights groups.

''I have heard these rumors, and we have to follow them up," he said, urging the US government to cooperate with the inquiry.

US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department ''does not operate detainee detention facilities on Navy warships." The ''detainee detention facilities are in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo," he said.

Nowak is one of several independent human-rights specialists appointed by the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission. He also reports to the UN General Assembly, has great autonomy in deciding what to investigate, and did not need outside approval to launch the probe into US detention practices and locations.

Nowak said he and three other experts decided last week to launch the inquiry after holding off for more than three years in hopes that Washington would give members access to Guantanamo Bay and other facilities holding terrorist suspects.

US officials so far have only allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Guantanamo, used as a prison for suspects allegedly linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Red Cross keeps its findings confidential, though some reports have been leaked by third parties.

The UN experts would be expected to make a public report.

Terror expert Magnus Ranstorp said Diego Garcia, a British-held island in the Indian Ocean that the United States uses as a strategic military base, has figured in reports as the location of a secret detention facility. He said most experts believe ''possibly one or two ships, and not a mini-fleet" could be used as possible floating detention centers.

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