By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross sent a doctor and another delegate to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo a week earlier than planned because of concern about a growing hunger strike among detainees, an ICRC spokesman said on Tuesday.
About a dozen ICRC representatives were scheduled to make a regular two-week visit to the detention camp on April 1, ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said.
"Because of the current tensions and hunger strike we decided to send a couple of delegates to the island starting this week," Schorno said. "One is a medical doctor whose job is to follow more specifically the hunger strike."
Thirty-one of the 166 prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba have joined the hunger strike, said Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention operation.
Eleven of them had lost enough weight that they were being fed liquid meals through tubes inserted into their noses and down into their stomachs, and three of those were hospitalized for rehydration and observation, Durand said.
The numbers had risen from 24 hunger strikers, with eight being force-fed a week ago.
Hunger strikes have flared up at the prison camp since it opened in January 2002 to hold men captured in counter-terrorism operations after the September 11 attacks.
The current hunger strike began about seven weeks ago. Military officers, human rights monitors and lawyers representing the prisoners have said it reflects frustration at the failure to resolve their fate.
"Tensions at Guantanamo are certainly related, in our view, to the uncertainty that's prevailing on the future for the detainees there," Schorno said. "We see a clear link between that and their emotional state."
Most have been held for 11 years without charge and more than half have been cleared for transfer or release.
Congress has made it increasingly difficult to release them. The United States will not send some back to their homelands because of instability or concerns over mistreatment. Other countries are reluctant to accept them for resettlement when the United States itself won't take any.
President Barack Obama promised to close the prison camp by 2010 but has barely mentioned Guantanamo since winning re-election.
Durand said the hunger strike has grown in part because detainees want to publicize their situation. Some are allowed to watch satellite television and read newspapers.
"They see their attorneys in the media and bringing wider attention to Guantanamo for the first time in years," he said.
Others had been refusing regular meals but eating stockpiled food that has run out, Durand said.
He denied allegations that the hunger strike was prompted in part by mishandling of Korans during cell searches, but said the military would not stop searching the Korans for contraband because of security concerns. The searches are carried out by Arab-English interpreters, who are Muslims and treat the books with respect, he said.
"The hunger strikers have created an unfortunate situation with no clear path to resolution. They have presented no demands that we can meet," Durand said.
The rest of the ICRC delegation will begin its scheduled visit on April 1, Schorno said. By international treaty, the group visits those detained during armed conflicts to ensure they are treated humanely. It does not comment publicly on its findings, but works privately with detaining authorities.
The ICRC has visited Guantanamo 92 times since the detention camp opened. It generally does two-week visits every six weeks to meet with detainees. In between, delegates visit for a week at a time to deliver mail and arrange video teleconferences between detainees and their families, Schorno said.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Stacey Joyce)