* Cell searches prompted mass hunger strike, lawyers say
* Pentagon says only a handful of prisoners are involved
* Most have been held for 11 years with no end in sight
By Jane Sutton
MIAMI, March 14 (Reuters) - Lawyers for Guantanamo prisoners urged U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday to help end a mass hunger strike that they said threatened the health and lives of detainees, though the U.S. military has played down the scale of the protest.
The detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in eastern Cuba holds 166 men captured in counterterrorism operations. Nearly all are Muslims and most have been held for 11 years without charge.
The lawyers said detainees began a widescale hunger strike on Feb. 6 to protest the confiscation of letters, photographs and legal mail, and the rough handling of Korans during searches of their cells.
"We have received additional reports from clients that the strike is ongoing and that the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways," the letter to Hagel said.
Some prisoners have lost more than 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms) and "at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels among some," said the letter, signed by 51 attorneys representing Guantanamo detainees.
They said more than 100 prisoners were taking part in the strike, and urged Hagel to help "address the underlying causes of the strike and bring it to a prompt and acceptable end."
A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, said a peaceful protest began at Guantanamo in early February and that "a small number" of detainees had intermittently refused regular meals, though some ate trail mix and other food between meals.
"A handful, however, have begun hunger striking in earnest, though as the (detention camp) spokesman has stated, there simply is no mass hunger strike there and those detainees who do endanger themselves will receive enteral feeding," he said.
Five or six long-term hunger strikers have been "enterally" fed, or force-fed, for years via tubes inserted through their noses and down into their stomachs.
MILITARY SAYS HEALTH NOT ENDANGERED
Breassealle said he did not know how many were currently being fed that way but that "To be clear: no detainee will be allowed to harm himself or to endanger his health."
He referred further questions to a military spokesman at Guantanamo, who did not answer Reuters' questions on Wednesday and Thursday.
Detainees' lawyers said camp operations had recently grown more "regressive," even as prisoners have grown more hopeless about their continued indefinite detention.
The Obama administration has cleared more than half of them for release or transfer, but Congress has blocked efforts to close the detention camp and made it increasingly difficult to resettle Guantanamo prisoners.
A Reuters photographer who visited the detention camp last week said military escorts told him there had been recent "disturbances" but did not elaborate.
He saw protest signs posted in one detention area, apparently made with art class supplies, that seemed to refer to lawyers' allegations that prisoners had tried to give up their Korans rather than have them mishandled during cell searches.
"None can tolerate desecration" one sign said. "We demand to hand over a Holy Koran because of your insulting," said another.
Military censors deleted Reuters' photographs of the signs. Under a longstanding policy, journalists can only visit the camp if they agree to allow "operational security" reviews of their photographs and video images before publication.
The U.S. military has said repeatedly that Korans are treated with respect at the detention camp.
The camp's legal adviser testified at a Guantanamo hearing on Feb. 14 that guards had seized legal documents, photos and other belongings from the cells of prisoners accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks.
An investigation into the searches was supposed to be finished by March 2, according to court documents, but the outcome of the investigation is still unknown. (Additional reporting by Bob Strong; Editing by Tom Brown and Todd Eastham)