GENEVA (AP) - The international Red Cross said Friday that President Bush (news - web sites)'s promise that Taliban fighters in U.S. detention will be covered by the Geneva Conventions still falls short of the requirements of international law.
Red Cross officials said Taliban and al-Qaida fighters must be considered prisoners of war - something the Bush administration said it would not do. The White House also said that while members of the former ruling Afghan militia would be covered by the Geneva Convention, fighters for Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s al-Qaida would not.
``The ICRC stands by its position that people in a situation of international conflict are considered to be prisoners of war unless a competent tribunal decides otherwise,'' said Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The comment by the ICRC - the official guardians of the Geneva Conventions - came as Britain and Germany welcomed the U.S. announcement.
The office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said it was waiting for an expert opinion on Bush statement, but UNHCR spokesman Jose Luis Diaz said, ``It looks like a step forward on the issue of the treatment of the prisoners.''
The Bush administration said its announcement did not mean a change in the treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners since the 186 prisoners held at a U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were already being treated humanely.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the decision was made to set a precedent - to ensure any future Americans held prisoner are well treated.
Bush refused to consider classifying the fighters as prisoners of war, denying them a wide range of rights and privileges afforded to POWs under the Geneva Conventions. For example, POWs must be returned to their home country once the war is over.
The White House also said al-Qaida members are not covered by the conventions, which it said apply to nations at war, not terrorist groups.
Gordon-Bates said ICRC lawyers are studying Bush's declaration in detail before they make any further comment.
The neutral, Swiss-run ICRC is mandated by the 1949 Geneva Conventions on warfare to oversee protection of POWs and other victims of war. The ICRC, however, lacks enforcement powers.
The Geneva Conventions, four treaties drawn up to avoid recurrences of World War II atrocities, were intended to regulate wars between nations and rebellions or insurgencies within a nation.
Gordon-Bates said a ``competent tribunal'' - one that understands the workings of the Geneva Conventions - should determine whether a detainee was considered a prisoner of war. He said it was too early to say whether Bush's proposed ``administrative tribunals'' would be satisfactory.
The International Commission of Jurists backed the ICRC. Bush's decision ``is incorrect in law,'' it said.
The Geneva-based organization, made up of 45 legal experts from different countries, works to uphold the rule of law and freedom of courts around the world.
``The convention requires the conferral of prisoner of war status unless a competent tribunal decides otherwise,'' the jurists commission said. ``Only a U.S. court and not the administration has the legal authority to make such a determination.''
Britain and Germany welcomed Bush's decision, while Japan urged the United States to respect the prisoners' basic human rights.
Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement, ``All along, the United States has made it clear that whatever the formal legal position, they have been committed to treating the detainees humanely and in accordance with the principles of customary international law.''
In Berlin, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Sparwasser said Bush had ``clearly defined and assured that treatment of all detainees will correspond to the rules of humanitarian law with full access for the international Red Cross.''
Misako Kaji, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's spokeswoman, said Tokyo was still working on a formal response. But she called for the United States to treat the detainees ``in a humanitarian way.''
Meanwhile, the lawyer for David Hicks, an Australian captured last year in Afghanistan (news - web sites) said he hopes Washington will now clarify how it plans to deal with Hicks, who is being held at Guantanamo.
No charges have been leveled against Hicks, who reportedly trained at an al-Qaida camp and was captured in November by U.S. troops.
``It does give us some hope because at least the people in Guantanamo Bay, certainly those classified as Taliban, now will have some certainty in the future,'' Hicks' lawyer Stephen Kenny told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.