By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, March 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. admiral in charge of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is defending the decision to build a $744,000 soccer field for well-behaved prisoners, and said critics misunderstood the facility's purpose and logistics.
Rear Admiral David Woods said the camp's mission was not to punish foreign captives unnecessarily, many of whom have been held there for 10 years already. He said his job is to detain them away from the battlefield under safe and humane conditions, and that providing socialization opportunities was part of that.
"It does include things that keep their mind active, like the classes that we keep and the entertainment, newspapers, books, TV that they're able to experience here," Woods told journalists visiting the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base on Wednesday night.
Military contractors Burns and Roe Services Corp and Dick Corp are building the new recreation yard to replace one that was popular among prisoners living at a communal camp that was shuttered two years ago due to chronic drainage problems, camp officials said.
The dusty, 28,000-square-foot soccer field includes a soft gravel walking track, security cameras and a high fence topped with razor wire. It is expected to open in the spring, after goal posts and latrines are added.
Woods said the cost of the recreation yard was high because every piece of equipment has to be imported by barge or plane to the remote base in southeast Cuba. The United States maintains an economic embargo against Cuba, its unwilling host, to pressure its communist government.
"That's probably the biggest misperception and lack of understanding of the expense of doing things down here," Woods said. "It's unlike any place else in the world mainly because we don't have the opportunity to capitalize on the local economy."
TALIBAN OR AL QAEDA LINKS
The Guantanamo detention camp holds 171 men, many with suspected links to the Taliban or al Qaeda. Only five have been convicted of crimes in military tribunals at the base and they are held separately from the general population.
The new recreation yard will be available to about 120 other detainees whose compliance with the rules has earned them a spot in "Camp 6," a communal prison building that offers art and language classes, group meals and expanded recreational opportunities. Woods said such amenities are a valuable incentive that have helped reduced attacks on the guards.
Journalists visiting the base for a tribunal hearing got a tour of the soccer field earlier in the week and the resultant publicity brought a storm of criticism.
A Florida congressman, Republican Gus Bilirakis, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday demanding to know who approved what he called a frivolous and wasteful expenditure at a time when the U.S. economic growth is tepid, military spending is being cut and U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
"It is curious that the federal government has managed to spend nearly a million dollars for the comfort and relaxation of detainees who are accused of posing a real risk to our country and people," Bilirakis wrote.
Many of the prisoners were captured after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to roust the al Qaeda group blamed for the hijacked plane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The military has been under pressure from rights monitors and its own inspectors to improve conditions for those facing indefinite detention. About half the prisoners have been cleared for release, but many are from Yemen but remain here because the United States has halted transfers to that unstable country. said. (Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara)