* High cost blamed on need to ship equipment to remote base
* Military under pressure to improve prison conditions
* Camp commander says critics don't understand mission
By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, March 1 (Reuters) -
The U.S. admiral in charge of the Guantanamo Bay detention
camp is defending the decision to build a $744,000 soccer field
for well-behaved prisoners, and said critics misunderstood the
facility's purpose and logistics.
Rear Admiral David Woods said the camp's mission was not to
punish foreign captives unnecessarily, many of whom have been
held there for 10 years already. He said his job is to detain
them away from the battlefield under safe and humane conditions,
and that providing socialization opportunities was part of that.
"It does include things that keep their mind active, like the
classes that we keep and the entertainment, newspapers, books,
TV that they're able to experience here," Woods told journalists
visiting the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base on Wednesday night.
Military contractors Burns and Roe Services Corp and Dick
Corp are building the new recreation yard to replace one that
was popular among prisoners living at a communal camp that was
shuttered two years ago due to chronic drainage problems, camp
The dusty, 28,000-square-foot soccer field includes a soft
gravel walking track, security cameras and a high fence topped
with razor wire. It is expected to open in the spring, after
goal posts and latrines are added.
Woods said the cost of the recreation yard was high because
every piece of equipment has to be imported by barge or plane to
the remote base in southeast Cuba. The United States maintains
an economic embargo against Cuba, its unwilling host, to
pressure its communist government.
"That's probably the biggest misperception and lack of
understanding of the expense of doing things down here," Woods
said. "It's unlike any place else in the world mainly because we
don't have the opportunity to capitalize on the local economy."
TALIBAN OR AL QAEDA LINKS
The Guantanamo detention camp holds 171 men, many with
suspected links to the Taliban or al Qaeda. Only five have been
convicted of crimes in military tribunals at the base and they
are held separately from the general population.
The new recreation yard will be available to about 120 other
detainees whose compliance with the rules has earned them a spot
in "Camp 6," a communal prison building that offers art and
language classes, group meals and expanded recreational
opportunities. Woods said such amenities are a valuable
incentive that have helped reduced attacks on the guards.
Journalists visiting the base for a tribunal hearing got a
tour of the soccer field earlier in the week and the resultant
publicity brought a storm of criticism.
A Florida congressman, Republican Gus Bilirakis, sent a
letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday demanding
to know who approved what he called a frivolous and wasteful
expenditure at a time when the U.S. economic growth is tepid,
military spending is being cut and U.S. troops are still
fighting in Afghanistan.
"It is curious that the federal government has managed to
spend nearly a million dollars for the comfort and relaxation of
detainees who are accused of posing a real risk to our country
and people," Bilirakis wrote.
Many of the prisoners were captured after the U.S. military
invaded Afghanistan to roust the al Qaeda group blamed for the
hijacked plane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The military has been under pressure from rights monitors
and its own inspectors to improve conditions for those facing
indefinite detention. About half the prisoners have been cleared
for release, but many are from Yemen but remain here because the
United States has halted transfers to that unstable country.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara)