By Jane Sutton and Matt Spetalnick
MIAMI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A violent weekend clash between guards and prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the release of harrowing accounts by inmates of force-feeding of hunger strikers brought President Barack Obama's failure to close the camp under close scrutiny on Monday.
The White House defended a raid carried out by guards on Saturday that highlighted weeks of mounting tensions with prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, but pointed the finger at Congress for keeping Obama from fulfilling his promise to shut the facility.
Many prisoners captured in counterterrorism operations abroad after the September 11, 2001 attacks have been held in legal limbo - without charge or trial - for over a decade and some despair of ever leaving.
"Instead of a swift execution, we are being subjected to a cruel, slow and cold-blooded death," Musa'ab al Madhwani, a Yemeni hunger striker wrote in a recent court affidavit dictated to his defence lawyer.
"Gitmo is killing me" was the headline of op-ed published on Monday in the New York Times and written by another Yemeni man who described in dramatic detail being strapped down and force-fed intravenously.
The hunger strike to protest against indefinite detentions escalated into violence between guards and prisoners during a weekend raid aimed at halting it.
Guards swept through communal cells and forcibly moved prisoners into individual cells, firing off four rounds of small, rubber pellets against those who resisted or fought back with makeshift weapons.
"We've been monitoring of course the situation at Guantanamo closely," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters when asked about the weekend raid. He said the prisoners were forcibly moved to "ensure their health and security."
Carney said Obama, who originally promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in 2009, remained committed to shutting it, but the president has offered no new path to doing so in his second term.
"Obstacles have been raised by Congress and that remains a reality," he said.
Obama has approved use of military tribunals to try some of the most dangerous suspects. But only nine of the current prisoners have been charged or convicted of crimes, according to military records.
Congress has made it difficult to repatriate others. The United States will not send some back to their homelands because of instability or concerns over mistreatment, and most countries are reluctant to accept them for resettlement when the United States itself will not take any.
Some legal experts say Obama could take action to close Guantanamo using his executive powers. If he were to do so, he would face serious opposition from both sides of the political aisle.
The prisoners' accounts of their treatment and those of their captors have always been at odds. Prisoners and their lawyers say more than 100 men are taking part in the hunger strike, which began two months ago.
But the military counts only 43 prisoners as being on a hunger strike. It says about a dozen have lost enough weight that they are being force-fed via tubes inserted in their noses and down into their stomachs - a method that human rights advocates strongly oppose as a violation of personal dignity.
Military doctors say the process is done gently, that the feeding tubes are lubricated before insertion - one said he used olive oil - and that the prisoners can choose which flavour of Ensure liquid meals they want.
The military has acknowledged that prisoners are sometimes strapped into restraint chairs, with their head and limbs immobilized to keep them from removing the tubes.
Yemeni hunger striker, Samir Najal al Hasan Moqbel, gave a harrowing account of his force-feeding on Monday in the New York Times.
Moqbel said he had lost about 30 pounds since joining the hunger strike on February 10. He said that in March, the Extreme Reaction Force, Guantanamo's version of a SWAT team in riot gear, burst into his cell, took him to the camp hospital and tied his hands and feet to the bed.
"They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray."
"As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn't," Moqbel said in a description dictated to his lawyer. "There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone."
Madhwani said he had lost 30 pounds since joining the hunger strike and had to use a rubber band to keep his pants from falling down. He said guards had tried to break the hunger strike by denying prisoners access to drinkable water, and by cranking up the air conditioning so high they shivered.
Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention camp, called those allegations "absolutely false."
Moqbel and Madhwani have both been held at Guantanamo for more than 11 years but said they had no affiliation with al Qaeda and had done nothing wrong. They were sent to Guantanamo from Afghanistan and surrounding nations where they were swept up in counter-terrorism operations.
Moqbel said the U.S. military had initially accused him of being a guard for Osama bin Laden but that, "They don't even seem to believe it anymore. But they don't seem to care how long I sit here, either."
Eighty-six prisoners have been cleared for release but are among the 166 men still held at Guantanamo. Most are Yemenis and the United States halted repatriations to that country in 2009 after a Yemeni-trained al Qaeda operative tried to set off an underwear bomb aboard a U.S.-bound plane.
"I believe that President Obama must be unaware of the unbelievably inhumane conditions at the Guantanamo Bay prison, for otherwise he would surely do something to stop this torture," Madhwani said.
The situation at Guantanamo, which was opened by Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, to hold foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is expected to be a focus of criticism in a independent report to be issued on Tuesday by a bipartisan task force that has investigated U.S. detention practices.
(Additional reporting by David Ingram; editing by Jackie Frank)