The Miami Herald
Apr. 02, 2003

Cuban ferry commandeered to Florida now drifting in Straits


  Under normal circumstances, the Lanchita de Regla -- the Regla launch -- ferries Cubans from Old Havana eastward across the Havana Bay channel to the district of Regla.

  At 1 o'clock this morning, a group of people commandeered the boat and ordered its pilot to take them to Florida. Shortly afterward, the boat ran out of fuel and drifted in international waters, at least 30 miles from the Cuban shore.

  Cuba's territorial waters extend only 12 miles from its shores.

  The 45-foot launch, which can hold as many as 80 passengers, is one of three vessels that carry commuters daily from one side of Havana Bay to the other. The hijacked boat, which bears the name Baraguá, left from the Morro Castle dock in Old Havana and headed for Casablanca, said Angel Reyes, chief of the Casablanca port.

  The hijacking comes a day after a Cubana de Aviación AN-24 airliner was hijacked from the island to Key West by a man carrying fake hand grenades. Last month, a group of six men hijacked a Cuban commercial DC-3 to Key West.

  After the launch docked at Casablanca, on the east side of the bay, ''about 15 or 16 people climbed aboard and forced the crew to head for the open sea,'' said Gilberto Vargas, who said his son Rodolfo is one of the crewmen.

  ''I was told there were 15 hijackers and 14 passengers aboard,'' Vargas said. That number could not be independently confirmed.

  However, a television newscast at noon in Havana said 50 people were aboard. The newscaster said the hijackers were threatening to throw the passengers into the water if Cuban Frontier Guard vessels approach the launch.

  Cuban authorities initially refused to give foreign reporters any information about the incident, but at noon issued a brief communiqué.

  ''The hijacked vessel is adrift 30 miles from our coastline, in international waters, and the hijackers demand fuel to continue their trip,'' the note said.

  The note added that "these terrorists and delinquents are stimulated by the policy of tolerance, resources, benefits, privileges, shelter and propaganda the governments of the United States have applied for more than 40 years in their effort to create and support counter-revolutionary movements and destroy the Cuban Revolution.''

  According to the communiqué, two ships from the Cuban Frontier Guard service -- the equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard -- escorted the boat out to sea and said they're keeping it at close range.

  The hijackers were armed with pistols, revolvers and knives, the Cuban note said.

  The Frontier Guard said it was told by U.S. authorities that the U.S. Coast Guard ''would not act'' in the case, because the hijacked boat sails under the Cuban flag and therefore is within Cuban jurisdiction.

  The Herald could not immediately confirm this assertion.

  ''What we will never do is use forcible measures that might endanger the lives of the people aboard that craft,'' the Cuban government note said.

  Residents of Casablanca gave journalists different accounts of the hijacking but agreed that armed men were involved.

  In Miami, FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said U.S. Coast Guard vessels had set off to intercept the boat.

  ''Negotiators are en route,'' she said, without giving additional information. Presumably, she alluded to hostage-crisis negotiators, although Cuban authorities on the scene referred to the seizure as "a theft.''

  The negotiators were sent by helicopter and told to rendezvous with a Coast Guard cutter, Orihuela said.

  ''We are ready to help the Cuban government to fulfill its obligations under international law,'' said Scott Carr, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.

  Havana authorities halted all ferry trips and arranged for buses to take the commuters around the bay.

  U.S. diplomatic sources in Havana said seas were rough, with five-foot waves.

  Herald wire services were used to prepare this report.