Last updated: December 16, 2009 12:11 am

US advances plans to close Guantánamo

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The Stars and Stripes flag flies at the Cuba-based military jail©AFP

The Stars and Stripes flag flies at the Cuba-based military jail. A limited number of suspects are to be sent to Illinois

The US plans to move as many as 100 suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay to a specially-acquired detention centre in Illinois and try them there, the White House said on Tuesday, as president Barack Obama starts delivering on his promise to close the prison camp.

The decision to move detainees on to American soil is highly controversial but the Obama administration said it would help prevent future attacks.

“In taking this action, we are removing from terrorist organisations around the world the recruiting tool that Guantánamo has come to symbolise [for those] that would harm our nation and seek to alter the way we live,” Jim Jones, the president’s national security adviser, said. The president on Tuesday ordered the US government to buy the Thomson Correctional Centre, an under-utilised 1,600-cell maximum security prison about 150 miles west of Chicago, to house the detainees.

There are about 215 prisoners still being held at Guantánamo but the administration said only a “limited number” would be transferred, without providing details or a timeframe. Dick Durbin, Democratic senator from Illinois, said as many as 100 would be moved to Thomson.

Many would be tried at Thomson by military commission tribunals, the White House said, while inmates not to be tried would be sent home or to third countries. About 550 detainees have already been transferred out of Guantánamo in this way.

The Illinois facility would cost about half as much as Guantánamo to operate but would still be run by the military, the administration said, seeking to assuage concerns about security at the prison, which it said would be beefed up to exceed “supermax”.

Mr Obama signed an executive order on his second day in office directing the closure by January 2010 of the Guantánamo Bay prison, where suspected terrorists were held without charge or trial during the Bush administration following the September 11 attacks.

That timetable has slipped as the White House encountered resistance on Capitol Hill. The plan and additional funding require Congress’s consent but Mr Durbin, the Democratic whip in the senate, said he was confident it would gain support.

Republicans immediately criticised the plan on Tuesday.

“The administration has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer,” said Mitch McConnell, minority leader in the Senate.

The Thomson centre was on a shortlist of facilities the Federal Bureau of Prisons had considered to house detainees from the Guantánamo Bay base. Others were in Montana, Michigan and Colorado.

The prospect of having Guantánamo detainees in such close range had been greeted with mixed feelings by the residents of towns on the shortlist.

Some have expressed concern about having suspected terrorists in their midst, fearing escape or attacks being planned. Officials on Tuesday said extra security measures, including a new perimeter wall, would be put in place to make the facility the most secure in the US.

Others have welcomed the jobs and economic boost the revamped centre would bring.

“It’ll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here,” Jerry Hebeler, president of the 450-strong Thomson village, told the Associated Press on hearing the news.

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