Saturday, April 5, 2003

Cuban ferry hijackers arrested in raid

                  HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- A standoff between Cuban troops and the hijackers of a small ferry
                  who had tried to sail to Florida ended as soldiers stormed the boat and hostages jumped
                  overboard to safety.

                  None of the hostages, about 50 in all, was injured in the operation Friday at the port of Mariel,
                  just west of Havana. Authorities took the hijackers to an undisclosed location.

                  "All of those who were on the boat were safely rescued without a shot or even a scratch," the
                  Cuban government said in a statement.

                  The hijackers commandeered the 45-foot ferry Baragua in Havana Bay on Wednesday and
                  demanded that it sail to the United States.

                  Cuban authorities chased the boat some 30 miles into international waters. FBI hostage
                  negotiators flew to a nearby U.S. Coast Guard cutter to offer help to the Cuban government.

                  Apparently lacking enough fuel for the U.S. journey, the ferry then turned around and headed
                  back to Cuban waters off Mariel.

                  The hijackers demanded fuel for the flat-bottomed ferry and threatened to harm passengers,
                  the government said.

                  Negotiations began between the hijackers and squads of heavily armed Cuban officials on a
                  dock near the ferry. At one point, a hijacker held a knife to the throat of a woman on the ferry.
                  Three ill hostages eventually were released.

                  The rescue operation began Thursday afternoon with a large military buildup at the port.

                  The government said a special forces sol dier on the dock persuaded a female hostage to jump
                  overboard and she was quickly rescued.

                  The special forces team then moved in to arrest the hijackers and secure the ferry as hostages
                  took cues from the officers and started jumping overboard, the statement said. At least one
                  hostage reportedly tackled one of the hijackers.

                  Cuban troops rescued passengers in the water and took control of the vessel, arresting the
                  hijackers -- including some who tried to mix with fleeing passengers in the water.

                  The government statement omitted many details, including how many suspects were arrested.

                  There was no mention in Friday's statement of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who traveled to
                  Mariel on Thursday to lead the effort to end the standoff.

                  The vessel was seized a day after a Cuban passenger plane was hijacked to Key West, Fla.,
                  by a man who allegedly threatened to blow up the aircraft with two grenades. The grenades
                  turned out to be fake.

                  Ten of the Cubans who were aboard the flight have opted to remain in the United States, while
                  19 others asked to go home, U.S. officials said.

                  Another Cuban plane was hijacked to Key West less than two weeks earlier.

                  The hijackings coincided with a crackdown on dissidents in Cuba and rising tensions with the
                  United States.

                  In the past, Cubans have taken advantage of periods of U.S.-Cuban friction to try to flee the

                  Several ferries were hijacked to the United States in 1994, when some 35,000 Cubans headed
                  toward Florida in dilapidated boats and rafts. The wave of illegal migrants subsided only after
                  the United States agreed to send back Cubans picked up at sea.

                  In a highly unusual move, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, James Cason, warned Cubans on
                  Wednesday night not to undertake any more hijackings, telling them in a message read on
                  communist-run television they would be prosecuted and lose the right to seek American

                  (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press.