GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- Three Middle Eastern detainees being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, committed suicide yesterday morning, military officials said, becoming the first captives to take their own lives at the prison and prompting new calls for an immediate shutdown.
The Defense Department said yesterday that the men - two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen - were found hanged in their cells. By taking their own lives, the prisoners confounded strenuous measures by military officials to prevent suicides. Also, the deaths occurred as the Bush administration battles growing international criticism of its detention procedures and faces a potentially fateful Supreme Court decision this month.
The military did not name the prisoners and released few details about the men but said that at least two were believed to have been members of international terrorist organizations and the third was part of a Taliban uprising.
All three had been on prior hunger strikes, and all had been force-fed.
"These are men who had gone on a hunger strike together. The methods of hanging themselves were similar," said Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the prison network. "I believe this was a coordinated attempt."
He called the three "committed jihadists" who died in acts of "asymmetrical warfare" - the term commonly used by U.S. military officials to describe tactics used by insurgents who face a militarily superior U.S. force in combat.
Army Gen. John Craddock, the leader of U.S. Southern Command, said the men were not among detainees seeking U.S. court reviews of their cases and had not appeared before controversial military trial panels. Although not accused of any crimes, the three were enemy combatants and terrorists, Craddock insisted.
"This is a determined, intelligent and committed element," he said. "They will continue to do everything they can ... to become martyrs in the jihad."
But, as many detainees pass their four-year mark in captivity without formal charges, human rights activists and defense attorneys said the prisoners have grown despondent over being detained without charges and without imminent prospects of a court hearing. Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International in Washington, said, "There is no question serious psychological trauma comes from that."
Previously, military officials said there had been 41 suicide attempts at Guantanamo this year, including three last month by detainees who tried to take their lives by overdosing on hoarded medication.
Last year, as many as 131 prisoners engaged in hunger strikes, and a similar protest this year involved 89 detainees, prison officials said. There are currently eight detainees on a hunger strike, Harris said.
Only 10 of the more than 460 men in custody at Guantanamo have been charged with crimes for their alleged involvement in terrorist activity. Meanwhile, recurring allegations of interrogation abuses and the trial system have spurred global condemnation. The United Nations Committee Against Torture called on the Bush administration last month to shut down the prison, and the European Union parliament urged this year that the prison be closed and detainees be given trials without delay.
Bush said he wants to see the prison vacant - just not yet: "We would like to end the Guantanamo - we'd like it to be empty. And we're now in the process of working with countries to repatriate people."
He added, "There are some that, if put out on the streets, would create grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world. And, therefore, I believe they ought to be tried in courts here in the United States."
Bush, still at Camp David, was told of the suicides at 7:45 a.m. yesterday. . Bush expressed serious concern and pressed to ensure the military was conducting an investigation, said Christie Parell, a White House spokeswoman.
"He stressed the importance of treating the bodies in a humane and culturally sensitive manner," she said.
A guard in the prison found the first man hanging from a noose fashioned out of his clothing shortly after midnight yesterday. The guard called in an emergency medical team. Other guards then found the two other men, also hanging, officials said.
"They worked hard to revive these men who were determined to take their lives," Harris said.
All three left suicide notes in Arabic, but military officials would not release details of the notes.
Craddock said an investigation was under way that would include an autopsy, and said the remains were being treated "with the utmost respect."
Julian E. Barnes, in Washington, and Carol J. Williams, at Guantanamo Bay, write for the Los Angeles Times. Knight Ridder/Tribune contributed to this article.