Three foreign prisoners being held at the US navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, died early today (NZ time) in apparent suicides, the first since it started to be used as a prison in January 2002, the US military said.
"Two Saudis and one Yemeni, each located in Camp 1, were found unresponsive and not breathing in their cells by guards," US Southern Command said in a statement.
The military said attempts to resuscitate the detainees failed and they were pronounced dead by a physician at Guantanamo, which holds just under 500 foreigners captured mainly in the US war against the Taleban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The suicides threw a fresh spotlight on the camp that has drawn widespread criticism against the Bush administration from foreign countries, including some allies, and human rights advocates.
Facing indefinite detention with none of the rights afforded formal prisoners of war, or criminal suspects in the US justice system, dozens of the detainees have undertaken hunger strikes.
Several have also attempted suicide while at least one fake suicide attempt was staged recently to trick prison guards into going into a cell where detainees intended to ambush them.
The names of the deceased were not released.
The US military said the bodies were being treated "with the utmost respect." An investigation had begun, it said.
A White House spokeswoman said President George W Bush, who is spending the weekend at Camp David, had been informed.
Bush has said he would like to close the detention centre and spoke of Guantanamo on Friday at a joint news conference with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who raised concerns about it with the US president.
"We'd like it to be empty," Bush said. "And we're now in the process of working with countries to repatriate people." Joshua Denbeaux, an attorney for two Guantanamo detainees -- not those who were among the apparent suicides -- said in an interview with CNN that the suicides represent the US government's "absolute worst nightmare."
"These people have been trying to kill themselves, or many of these prisoners have been trying to kill themselves, for months, if not years," Denbeaux said.