April 3, 2003

Castro visits hijacked ferry site

Cuba says three hostages were released

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) --Cuban President Fidel Castro on Thursday visited the port of
Mariel where at least 30 men, women and children were being held hostage aboard a
ferry tethered about 30 feet from the dock, a source familiar with the situation told CNN.

Three hostages were released at some point in the day, the Cuban government

It was not clear how much time Castro spent at the dock or what the purpose
of his visit was.

The source said at least a dozen alleged hijackers were involved. The Cuban
government estimated there were about eight or 10 hijackers, describing them
as very violent.

At one point, the source said, they were threatening female hostages with
knives and at least one firearm.

A statement from the Cuban government said the hijackers released three
people -- two women and a man -- because of their physical conditions.

The statement also said the hijackers were demanding to have the vessel
refueled so they could go to the United States.

The Cuban government said it would use force if the hostages' conditions
become critical, the statement added.

The ferry was hijacked Wednesday and left Cuba, heading into the Florida

FBI stands down

The Cuban government alerted U.S. authorities about the situation, and the FBI
sent hostage negotiators to the area where the ferry was drifting. The vessel
then moved slowly northeast, about 60 miles from Key West, Florida.

Key West is about 90 miles from Cuba.

"At no point did our agents make contact with the boat," said FBI spokesman
Wayne Russell, adding that the bureau left the scene in the evening.

"The Cuban government is taking charge of the situation. We are standing
down," FBI special agent Judy Orihuela said late Wednesday.

The ferry was eventually towed back to Cuba around 1 a.m. EST with the
consent of the hijackers because big waves in the open sea put the boat at risk
of capsizing, the Cuban government statement said.

U.S. statement read on Cuban TV

"There were communications between the two governments on the issue," said
the source familiar with the situation.

A commentator on Cuba's state-run television read a statement Wednesday
night from James Cason, mission chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

"If it wasn't the first time, it was the first time in a long time a U.S. official has
had that kind of direct contact with the Cuban people," said Gonzalo Gallegos,
a spokesman for the U.S. Interests Section.

Cason's statement warned that "any hijacker of any nationality, including
Cubans" would face criminal prosecution if caught hijacking any means of
transportation to the United States, Gallegos said.

Gallegos said Cason's statement was also published in two Cuban newspapers
and read on state radio.

Third recent hijacking

Wednesday's alleged ferry hijacking was the third similar incident in a
two-week span.

A Cubana Air passenger plane was hijacked to Key West on Tuesday.
Another plane from the government airline was also hijacked to Key West on
March 19. Both planes remain at the Key West International Airport; no one
was hurt in either incident.

The hijackers in both cases were arrested and face federal criminal prosecution.

The hijackings come amid a new Cuban government effort to crack down on
dissidents. Several human rights advocates and other dissidents have been
taken into custody. The trials for the first group arrested began Thursday.

The trials are closed to the international press.

Gallegos said the United States attempted to send U.S. representatives to
observe the trials, but they were not allowed inside.

Also Thursday, Gallegos said Cuban authorities searched the home of Cuban
Human Rights Party President Odilia Collazos and inventoried everything in her
home. The inventory might be used by the government if it chooses to make an

CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Tony Valdez in the CNN
Havana Bureau contributed to this report.