MIAMI (Reuters) - More prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have joined a growing hunger strike that their lawyers say reflects hopelessness about their prospects of ever being freed from the U.S. detention centre in Cuba.
Twenty-four captives were on a hunger strike as of Tuesday evening and eight of those had lost enough weight that doctors were force-feeding them liquid nutrients thorough tubes inserted into their noses and down into their stomachs, said Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention operation.
The detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in eastern Cuba holds 166 men captured in counterterrorism operations. Nearly all have been held for 11 years without charge.
The number of hunger strikers has grown from 14 on Friday, Durand said. The military counts prisoners as hunger strikers if they have skipped at least nine consecutive meals.
Two hunger strikers were hospitalized with dehydration, he said.
The Obama administration has cleared more than half the Guantanamo prisoners for release or transfer, but Congress has blocked efforts to close the detention camp and made it increasingly difficult to resettle Guantanamo prisoners.
Many are Yemenis whom the United States will not repatriate at this time because of instability in that country.
Periodic hunger strikes have occurred since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002.
More than 50 lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners sent a letter to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel last week urging him to help end the current hunger strike. They said the participants' health had deteriorated alarmingly, and that some had lost more than 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms).
The lawyers said hopes were dwindling that the Obama administration would keep its promise to close the camp. They said more than 100 detainees began a widescale hunger strike early last month to protest the confiscation of letters, photographs and legal mail, and the rough handling of Korans during searches of their cells.
Durand called the allegations "outright falsehoods and gross exaggerations."
"The claims of a mass hunger strike and an incident in which the Koran was mishandled are simply untrue," he said. "We take extraordinary care to respect the Koran and categorically deny any claims of abuse, desecration or mishandling."
(This story is corrected in eighth paragraph to show the prison opened in 2002)
Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Doina Chiacu