A US military official told Time magazine, published on Sunday, that it would release 140 inmates from its detention centre in Cuba, in the face of mounting international criticism of the legal limbo that has left them without access to legal representation.

A US military official told the magazine that the detainees nominated for release are "the easiest 20%" of the estimated 660 people kept at Guantanamo Bay, which the United States has leased from Cuba since 1903.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some of the detainees had been captured by regional commanders in Afghanistan, and sold for the bounty offered by Washington for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

"Many would not have been detained under the normal rules of engagement," the source told the weekly.

"We're dealing with some very, very dangerous people, but the pendulum is swinging too far in the wrong direction."

Twenty prisoners were released and repatriated on 21 November, but another 20 arrived around the same time, leaving the total number of inmates unchanged.

Outside the law

The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has been a source of international controversy since it was opened on 11 January 2002, with Washington insisting that all the detainees are enemy combatants ineligible for due legal process.

Angelo Gnaedinger, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), last week called their legal status "not acceptable," as one of Britain's most senior judges, Johan Steyn, described their imprisonment as a "monstrous failure of justice". 
 

Reports in London said that Britain and the United States were set to strike a deal by Christmas for the return to Britain of nine Britons held at the base.

The US Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to hear an appeal lodged by lawyers for two Britons, two Australians and 12 Kuwaitis challenging US claims that the detainees were outside the jurisdiction of American courts.

After lengthy talks, the United States and Australia have announced the first deal over the trial of foreigners at Guantanamo, with Washington agreeing not to seek the death penalty for Australians David Hicks and Mamduh Habib and saying it will consider allowing them to serve any jail sentences in Australia.

Reports in London said that Britain and the United States were set to strike a deal by Christmas for the return to Britain of nine Britons held at the base.

Breaches of security

Despite Guantanamo's isolation, it has suffered several security breaches - most recently with accusations Saturday that army Colonel Jack Farr mishandled classified documents there and then lied to investigators about the incident.

Two other people who worked at Guantanamo are currently held as part of an investigation into alleged mishandling of classified documents or espionage.

Ahmad Fathy Mehalba, a 31-year-old naturalized US citizen of Egyptian descent who worked at Guantanamo as an interpreter, was indicted earlier this month on charges of gathering, transmitting or losing defence information, and two counts of making false statements.

An Air Force translator, Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, was arrested on 23 July on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy by attempting to send information about the prisoners and the facility to Syria.

Army chaplain Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain who received religious training in Syria, was arrested 20 September on accusations of mishandling classified information.

But these charges were dropped this past week and replaced with accusations of adultery and keeping pornography on his computer, his lawyer said.