February 28, 2002

Cubans crash into Mexican embassy

By CNN Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) --A busload of Cuban citizens -- using a Mercedes bus
-- crashed through a gate at the Mexican embassy just before midnight
Wednesday with the apparent intention of seeking asylum.

According other eyewitnesses, about dozen Cubans made it into the compound and
were seen on the roof of the embassy, crying out anti-government slogans and
threatening to jump if police entered the embassy grounds.

Some of the people on the bus were injured during the gate-crashing incident,
according to a news agency cameraman and producer at the scene, who said they
were attacked by police with batons to prevent them from videotaping the events.

Hundreds of police with dogs and plain-clothes government agents soon flooded the
area, blocking off access to journalists and passersby. Hundreds of people, including
whole families, had started to gather around the embassy.

Busloads of pro-government groups -- many armed with sticks -- were then brought
in to confront any would-be asylum seekers, a common government tactic to deal
with government opponents, according to CNN Havana Bureau Chief Lucia

International news organizations have been forbidden from broadcasting images of
what happened. Cuban authorities said the transmission from the government
television station has been suspended for "obvious reasons."

The break-in came on a day of tension outside the embassy in the upmarket Miramar
district after rumors swept the capital that Mexico was offering to take in Cubans
wanting to leave the communist-run island, Reuters reported.

At one stage, Cuban President Fidel Castro visited the scene to try to restore calm.

Mexican diplomats said the rumors were false and there was no offer of asylum.

Andres Ordonez, a spokesman for the embassy, said the rumors may have started
through an incorrect interpretation of some comments by Mexican Foreign Minister
Jorge Castaneda in Miami, which were transmitted to Cuba via the Florida-based
anti-Castro radio station Radio Marti.

"This is a rumor, we are not opening our gates," he told Reuters.

Rare violence

The incident raised memories of a mass invasion of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana
-- also sparked by a bus break-in which killed a Cuban guard in the melee -- by
thousands of asylum-seekers in 1980.

That incident prompted Castro to temporarily ease immigration restrictions, leading
to a famous exodus of some 125,000 refugees to the United States.

In 1994 a group of 124 Cuban asylum- seekers occupied the residence of the Belgian
ambassador in Havana but left voluntarily a month later.

In Wednesday's rare show of public violence, police reacted aggressively to the bus
break-in, chasing, beating and detaining people in the street.

Two Reuters journalists were among those beaten with batons in chaotic scenes
after the incident at about 10 p.m. (0300 GMT).

Soon after midnight, Castro turned up at the scene, staying for about 20 minutes in
the vicinity of the residence, and apparently trying to calm the atmosphere.

"Tomorrow we must get up early, there's work to be done," he told some members
of the crowd after arriving.

Castro was accompanied by Vice-President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe
Perez Roque.

By the time of Castro's arrival, the crowd of asylum-seekers had been dispersed and
replaced by truckloads of government supporters, many carrying batons, and
members of pro-state Rapid Response Brigades. They chanted: "Fidel! Fidel!"

Cuban and Mexican sources said that between one and two dozen asylum-seekers
were still in the embassy Thursday morning, including most of those who entered in
the bus, and possibly others who got in earlier during the day.