The Dallas Morning News
July 22, 2003

U.S. reaches deal on Cuban hijackers

Group turned over to island authorities after execution is ruled out

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA U.S. authorities returned 12 Cuban hijackers to the island Monday after Cuban authorities promised to spare their lives and give them prison sentences
of less than 10 years.

The deal came just three months after heated tensions over U.S.-Cuba migration issues culminated in the Cuban government's firing-squad execution of three ferry
hijackers.

The latest episode began just before 4 a.m. on July 15 when the Cubans stole a government vessel, the Gaviota 16, at Boca de Nuevitas port southeast of Havana.

The hijackers subdued three guards, took an AK-47 from them and headed for open sea. A Cuban patrol boat tracked the Gaviota until it reached Bahamian
waters. The 36-foot craft turned toward the United States, and the Coast Guard intercepted it in international waters on Wednesday.

The hijackers attacked Coast Guard officers with homemade weapons and fire extinguishers, authorities said. They were detained, questioned and returned Monday
to the Cuban port of Bahía de Cabañas, along with the guards, who had been abducted.

Cuban officials said the U.S. action was a "valuable contribution ... in the fight against those who use violence and force to hijack planes and boats."

For decades, the United States and Cuba have fought over immigration policy, each using it as a diplomatic and strategic weapon.

Cubans who flee the island and reach U.S. soil without being caught are generally given preferential immigration status, usually receiving residency after one year.
Cuban authorities complain that such treatment encourages hijackings and dangerous illegal crossings. In recent months, President Fidel Castro has accused the
United States of trying to provoke a migrant exodus so it would have an excuse to take military action against his government.

American officials deny the allegation. But lately, rumors have been circulating here that the United States may be easing immigration restrictions for Cubans.

"Those rumors are false," James Cason, America's top diplomat in Havana, said Monday in an unusual nationally televised statement read by a Cuban announcer.
"Cuban citizens who take to the seas in a misguided effort to reach the United States" will be sought and "prosecuted with the full force of the U.S. legal system," he
said.

Few foreigners seen as critical of Cuba are allowed air time. Pope John Paul II and former President Jimmy Carter have been among the recent exceptions. In April,
Mr. Cason was first allowed to express his views, during negotiations over another hijacking.