Hijacked plane from Cuba 2nd in 2 weeks
Man brandished fake grenades
BY JENNIFER BABSON AND OSCAR CORRAL
KEY WEST - A man using two fake hand grenades commandeered a passenger plane from Cuba to Florida on Tuesday, in a 14-hour ordeal that, for a few hours at least, united the U.S. and Cuban governments in an effort to stop the hijacking.
The truce was short-lived: Within hours of the plane's landing
in Key West, U.S. officials blasted Cuba for incompetent airport security,
and Cuba accused the U.S.
government of being soft on hijackers.
The hijacking was the second from Cuba in two weeks. On the heels of harsh criticism from the Cuban government of U.S. response to hijackers from the island, top federal law enforcers in Miami reacted aggressively. U.S. Attorney Marcos Jiménez hosted a news conference to denounce air piracy, and Miami FBI chief Hector Pesquera flew to Key West to oversee the investigation.
''That's a serious crime, with serious punishment,'' Jiménez said. ``This man is looking at 20 years in federal prison.''
The hijackings have occurred in the midst of one of the Cuban government's biggest crackdowns on island-based dissidents in years.
Complicating the international situation, a private attorney representing Ana Margarita Martinez, ex-wife of Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque, submitted legal documentation that would allow her to seize the Cubana airline plane and sell it to settle a judgment she won against Cuba.
The attorney, Fernando Zulueta, has already won the right to auction off the plane that was hijacked two weeks ago by six Cuban men.
Like the plane that was hijacked March 19, the AN-24 twin-engine propeller plane that landed in Key West on Tuesday took off from Nueva Gerona in Isle of Youth, off Cuba's southern coast.
On Monday night, Adermis Wilson González, 33, boarded the plane with his wife and son. Wilson brandished two grenade-like balls and yelled that he would blow up the plane unless the pilots took him to Miami, authorities said.
The plane did not have enough fuel to make it to the United States and landed instead at José Martí International Airport in Havana at about 9:30 p.m. Monday.
Minutes after it landed, the Havana airport shut down.
In a rare display of cooperation, James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, hurried to the airport to try to dissuade Wilson from continuing to Florida.
''The U.S. Interests Section tried to convince the individual that if he tried to come this way, he would be prosecuted,'' Pesquera said, adding that Cason was ``personally involved.''
A night of intense negotiations led to more than 20 passengers being released Tuesday morning in Havana.
The plane was refueled and Cuban government cars delivered three white packages to the plane minutes before it took off for Florida at 10:45 a.m. The packages may have contained food and beverages.
By the time the plane took off with 32 people still on board, the U.S. military had already scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from Homestead Air Reserve Base.
As the plane approached, Key West International Airport was evacuated, a U.S. Customs Black Hawk helicopter joined the escort, all flights were diverted and FBI agents and Key West SWAT team snipers took positions around the airfield.
Stunned airport passengers hauled suitcases into the parking lot after being told to evacuate because police were concerned about possible explosives aboard the Cuban plane. A hostage negotiator using a bullhorn directed the passengers off the plane with their hands over their heads.
OFF THE PLANE
Wilson was one of the first people off the plane. He wore a red jacket with the word ''America'' stitched on the back and carried his son. The boy was handed to a woman who may have been his mother, who was also on the flight.
Wilson was arrested and separated from the other passengers, who underwent hours of interviews that lasted well into Tuesday evening.
One by one, over a period of 40 minutes, the rest of the passengers disembarked individually. Men lifted their shirts and hands to show they had no weapons, and were told to lie face down in front of the plane.
After everyone else was off the plane, a deputy from Monroe County's bomb squad, clad in a green protective suit, removed the bogus grenades from Wilson's pockets.
Wilson will be charged with knowingly and willfully taking a plane by force, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.
The other passengers were processed by federal agents, their hands bound with plastic handcuffs. The pilot asked to be sent back to Cuba, and some of the passengers may have requested to be allowed to stay in the United States, law-enforcement sources said.
A statement by the Cuban government published in the state-run newspaper, Granma, said Wilson has ''the worst prison record'' and describes him as a ''virulent man, extremely shrewd but of a low cultural level.'' Granma reported that a search of Wilson's home turned up four fake grenades. Law-enforcement sources said the grenade-like balls used by Wilson were ceramic and painted black.
The hijacking triggered speculation about the unusual procedures the Cuban government followed. In the four decades that Fidel Castro has been in power, experts could not recall another case where the government negotiated with hijackers.
''This is not the kind of behavior one would expect from the Cuban government,'' said Frank Calzon, executive director for the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington.
Experts also wondered why the government would post an official notice of the incident in the state-controlled media.
''Assuming it was a legitimate hijacking,'' said Edward Gonzalez, a Cuba expert and consultant at the California-based RAND, a nonprofit think tank, ``I think they decided to use it as a way to offset all the bad press they've been getting from the dissident crackdown. It certainly pushes repression into the back pages.''
Cuba was already incensed over the last hijacking two weeks ago and the move to auction off the plane.
''If there is one country in the world where a hijacking with a knife at the throat of a pilot should cause indignation and horror, it's the United States,'' Castro said March 22 in a televised roundtable discussion. ``Returning the plane is the least they can do.''
State Department spokesman Phil Reeker shot back that the problem is not American treatment of hijackers but Cuban security.
''Two hijackings in two weeks indicates that there is a lack
of airport security,'' he said. ``And while they're using police and security
forces to arrest human-rights
activists, people promoting democracy and journalists, they might better use those individuals to . . . make sure their laws are abided by and that their airports are
Herald staff writers Nancy San Martin, Jennifer Maloney, Jay Weaver and Elaine de Valle and Herald translator Renato Perez contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from Herald wire services.