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Cuba Seeks Return of 4 Coast Guard Defectors - 2003-02-10

Cuba is calling for the repatriation of four coast guardsmen who defected to the United States last week.

The leader of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, said U.S. officials must send back, not only the coast guardsmen, but also the patrol boat the defectors used to cross the Florida Straits Friday.

[In Washington, the State Department said the United States has returned the patrol boat. Spokesman Robert Zimmerman gave no details of the return, and it was not clear where the four defectors were Monday morning.]

The coast guardsmen landed at Key West, a tiny resort island off Florida's southernmost tip. The defectors, who surrendered to a local police officer, said they were patrolling Cuban waters, when they made a spontaneous decision to head for the United States. U.S. authorities found the vessel docked at a Key West marina still flying the Cuban flag. Officials also found guns and ammunition.

Cuba says, keeping the men and the patrol boat would constitute a violation of bilateral immigration accords, designed to stem the flow of Cuban rafters taking to the sea in hopes of reaching the United States.

The U.S. Border Patrol says it continues to interview the defectors. U.S. immigration authorities in Miami have declined to comment on the matter.

Under a U.S. policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," Cubans intercepted at sea are typically repatriated, while those reaching U.S. soil are almost always allowed to remain and eventually apply for U.S. residency.