The South Florida Sun Sentinel
April 1, 2003

Hijacker surrenders in Key West; 32 aboard Cuban airliner safe staff & wires

KEY WEST -- A hijacker who forced a Cuban Airlines plane to Key West International Airport by claiming to have two grenades surrendered Tuesday about an
hour after the plane landed with 32 passengers and crew members on board, authorities said.

The hijacker appeared to be in his mid-20s and was carrying a small boy in his arms when he came off the plane, Key West police spokesman Steve Torrence
said. The man, wearing a red windbreaker with the word ``America'' stitched in white on the back, was taken into FBI custody.

``He got off the plane with a child in his arms when he got at the bottom of the stairs ... the little child grabbed his leg,'' Torrence said. The hijacker was not
immediately identified.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office bomb squad removed the grenades from the plane and a bomb-sniffing dog searched the aircraft before it was declared safe,
Sheriff Richard Roth said.

Roth said preliminary tests by investigators indicated the explosives were homemade fake grenades.

The airport was closed for an hour in the second hijacking of a Cuban airliner to Key West in less than a month.

Passengers departed the plane near the parked twin-engine Douglas DC-3 that was hijacked on March 19.

``When I first got the call, since it's April first, I thought the possibility could be that it was an April Fools joke,'' airport manager Peter Horton said. ``But it turned
out to be real.''

The man had taken control of the Soviet-made AN-24 plane on a Cuban domestic flight Monday night. After a several hour standoff at Havana's Jose Marti
International Airport, it took off for Key West on Tuesday morning, landing there about 50 minutes later.

Hector Pesquera, head of the FBI's South Florida office, said the plane departed Cuba despite attempts by U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason to persuade
the hijacker to surrender. Pesquera said Cason warned the hijacker during negotiations that he would be prosecuted and not offered asylum if he took the plane to

Some passengers in Tuesday's hijacking had safely left the aircraft in Havana, but Pesquera said 25 passengers and seven crew members were still on the plane
when it landed in Florida. The passengers included 12 men, 9 women and four children, he said.

Pesquera said no charges had been filed against the hijacker and the FBI had dispatched translators to Key West to interview the passengers.

An eyewitness said that when passengers were led off the rear of the plane they were asked to lift up their shirts and were searched by police.

Maj. Ed Thomas of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is responsible for the defense of U.S. airspace, said the Air Force scrambled two
F-16 Flying Falcons from Homestead Air Force Reserve Base to escort the plane to Key West.

Earlier Tuesday in Havana, two separate groups of as many as two dozen passengers, including a woman holding a small child, jumped from the open back hatch
of the plane into the arms of emergency workers. The passengers then boarded buses and were driven off the runway.

Later, two white cars drove onto the airport tarmac and a man aboard one car handed three large, stuffed plastic bags to someone inside the plane. It was
unknown what was inside the bags.

Cuban authorities originally reported six children among the 46 people aboard the hijacked craft.

It was not immediately clear what led to the passengers' release almost 12 hours after the man seized control of the plane and demanded to be flown to Florida.

The Cuban Airlines plane was hijacked late Monday on a flight from Cuba's small Isle of Youth to Havana but was forced to land in the capital because it lacked
sufficient fuel to make it to the United States, Cuban authorities said.

Shortly after daybreak, a tank with a hose was rolled out onto the tarmac and appeared to be refueling the craft. The plane was surrounded by several dozen
uniformed police officers, and two fire trucks and numerous ambulances were parked nearby.

It would be extremely difficult for an average citizen to get access to grenades in communist-run Cuba, where such weapons are heavily guarded by the military.

It was also unclear how anyone would get a pair of grenades through the heavy security checks at Cuba's airports, especially less than two weeks after a successful
hijacking on the same route of a passenger plane to the United States.

All incoming and outgoing air traffic at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport appeared suspended during the negotiations. An Iberia Airlines flight to Madrid
was grounded and photographers and cameramen at the scene said that they had seen no takeoffs or landings for several hours.

A government statement said the Soviet-made Cuban Airlines plane was on a regular passenger flight from the Isle of Youth's main city of Nueva Gerona when the
pilot reported that the craft was being hijacked to the United States by a man armed with grenades.

The statement from Cuban authorities blamed the hijacking on what Havana says is the lax treatment that six other suspected hijackers received last month after
successfully forcing another plane from Cuba to Key West at knifepoint.

The suspects in the earlier successful hijack were charged with conspiracy to seize an aircraft by force and violence and face a minimum of up to 20 years in federal
prison. They were granted bond, but remain behind bars because they have been unable to come up with the money.

Cuban authorities were pleased that American officials decided to charge the six but were enraged last week when a federal judge decided to set bond over the
objections of prosecutors.

In the March 19 hijacking, six crew members and 25 passengers were on a twin-engine Douglas DC-3 on the same route when knife-wielding hijackers took
control of the plane as it descended toward Havana after a trip from the Isle of Youth. They diverted the plane to Key West.

Sixteen of those aboard later opted to return to Cuba and the only non-Cuban on the flight, an Italian, was released in the United States.

The rest of the passengers and crew members on that earlier flight opted to stay in the United States under a U.S. immigration policy that allows Cubans who reach
American soil to stay and seek legal residency after a year.