The Pentagon will not stop force-feeding Guantanamo detainee hunger strikers despite criticism from some doctors that has mounted even as the number of strikers has fallen, officials said on Friday.
A group of 263 doctors from seven countries called on the US to end the force-feeding and use of restraint chairs for detainees fed through nasal tubes into their stomachs at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Their letter, in the British medical journal the Lancet, also questioned how seriously the US medical profession takes allegations of torture by its own members.
"The policy of the department is unchanged, and it is to support the preservation of life by appropriate clinical means and to do that in a humane manner," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
The Pentagon said there were six detainees currently on a hunger strike, including three being tube-fed. It said the number of hunger strikers peaked at about 130 in September and was as high as 84 in late December, but fell to about a half dozen in January.
Detainees launched the strike in August to protest conditions and lack of legal rights at Guantanamo, according to their lawyers.
"I think it's fair to say that these are difficult issues -- they are difficult moral, ethical, legal issues," Whitman said. "And one would not expect that everyone would come to a consensus on this."
The Lancet letter's authors called it a challenge to the American Medical Association (AMA).
AMA Chairman Doctor Duane Cady said his group, the largest professional organization of physicians in the US, has told the military of its opposition to force-feeding hunger strikers, but noted "we are not a regulatory or licensing agency."
General Bantz Craddock has said Guantanamo officials in recent months began strapping some detainees into "restraint chairs" during force-feeding and isolating them after determining some had been purposely vomiting the liquid they had been fed.
Craddock, who as head of US Southern Command oversees the Guantanamo prison, said some detainees subsequently decided that taking part in the strike had become "too much of a hassle."
About 490 foreign terrorism suspects are being held at Guantanamo and only 10 have been charged with a crime.