THE US military is investigating allegations that its servicemen abused dozens of Haitian minors confined to a refugee camp at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
''There is an investigation. We haven't heard back yet from the investigators,'' says Air Force Sgt. Jerold Hawkins, the spokesman for the military contingent overseeing Cuban and Haitian refugees at Guantanamo. ''We take charges like that very seriously.''
The allegations -- including handcuffing, assaults, and incarceration -- have enraged refugee and human rights groups already angered by the Clinton administration. The White House has refused to admit into the US most of the tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans taken to Guantanamo last year after being prevented from reaching US shores on boats.
Critics decry the policy as a politically motivated response to growing anti-immigration sentiments in the United States.
After the US-engineered ouster of Haiti's former military regime in October, all but about 4,400 of the 21,000 Haitians sheltered at Guantanamo returned home voluntarily. All but about 780 of the 4,400 have now been forcibly repatriated.
Those remaining include 328 Haitian minors who fled their Caribbean island alone. Their parents were either killed by the former military regime or they were themselves victims of abuse. Two hundred have relatives in the US and many others have sponsors.
But the Clinton administration plans to send them all home once an orphanage is located.
''The thing that concerns me is that many of these children are terrified about returning to Haiti,'' says Cheryl Little, a lawyer involved in a campaign to have the minors admitted to the US.
The minors' plight, she says, has been worsened by alleged mistreatment meted out by US soldiers who guard their tent camp at Guantanamo. Ms. Little, three other lawyers, a social worker, and a paralegal made two trips to Guantanamo in December and January to obtain background information from the minors.
It was in interviews on the second trip, Little says, that ''dozens'' of minors began voluntarily disclosing abuse by US soldiers.
''Child after child was complaining about being abused by the soldiers, by the MPs [military police],'' says Little of the Florida Rural Legal Services in Miami.
''We interviewed between 150 and 200 children,'' Little says. ''The children told us that many of the soldiers treat them very well. The same names of soldiers who were allegedly abusing them kept coming up over and over. There were about half a dozen.''
She says that she and her colleagues realized the seriousness of the allegations when they ''compared notes at night. We noticed they were all consistent.''
Little and colleague Marliene Bastiens say the abuse allegedly occurred when minors quarreled among themselves or with US troops or resisted orders, including getting up at 4 a.m. for trash cleanups. ''Sometimes they were handcuffed and placed on their knees for hours,'' says Ms. Bastiens, a Haitian social worker. Or, she alleges, minors were handcuffed and placed in ''administrative detention.''
That meant having to remain alone for hours in a special tent. Adds Little: ''The children also complained of being 'cracked.' Apparently, what that means is that the soldiers cuff their hands behind their backs, the kids are forced to drop to their knees and lie down, their ankles are then cuffed, and the soldiers step on their backs.''
Many minors have been regularly incarcerated in the base jail, she says. Sergeant Hawkins says that rules for dealing with unruly behavior authorize US soldiers to use handcuffs only when minors ''try to cause harm to one of the troops or they are in a position to cause harm to one of their fellow migrants.''
Little denies that the minors behaved in an aggressive manner: ''They were exhibiting typical children's behavior, in my view. One child said he was handcuffed for wiping his face on a sheet that was hanging on the concertina wire fence'' surrounding the camp.
Little also tells of a 14-year-old Haitian girl who attempted suicide and was allegedly denied prompt medical treatment.
Hawkins vehemently denies that claim. ''We have no report whatsoever of anything near that,'' he says. ''No one is refused medical treatment.''
Little says US military officers agreed to investigate the charges after she presented them with a written summary.