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US Immigration Service Releases Cuban Coast Guardsmen - 2003-02-18


U.S. Immigration officials have released four Cuban coast guardsmen who made a daring journey across the Florida Straits and whose return is being sought by the Cuban government.

The release of the four is sure to displease the government of President Fidel Castro, which argues that allowing the officers to remain in the United States would violate bilateral immigration accords.

Already, the nine-meter patrol boat the men used to flee Cuba has been returned to Cuba.

The escape gained notoriety after the coast guard vessel docked at a marina February 7 on the tiny resort island Key West, off Florida's southernmost tip. Armed and in uniform, the four wandered the streets before surrendering to a local police officer. U.S. authorities later found the vessel flying the Cuban flag.

Initially, the coast guardsmen said they made a spontaneous decision to flee Cuba while patrolling waters near Havana. Now, however, they concede the voyage had been planned for months, and that they made their break for the United States while President Castro was delivering a speech at a theater in the Cuban capital.

For years, the United States has sought to discourage Cubans from making the often-dangerous journey across the Florida Straits. But under a U.S. policy known as "wet foot-dry foot," Cubans who reach U.S. soil are almost always allowed to remain and eventually apply for U.S. residency. Only those intercepted at sea are repatriated.

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