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Boat From Cuba With 15 Aboard Heads Toward US - 2003-07-17

A surveying boat stolen from Cuba with 15 people on board appears headed for U.S. territorial waters. U.S. Coast Guard officials will not say where the boat is, but they say U.S. laws protecting the nation's borders will be enforced.

Both U.S. and Cuban officials agree the vessel belonging to Cuba's state marine surveying company GeoCuba, was stolen from the port of Nuevitas, on Cuba's north coast earlier this week.

Bahamian authorities say the vessel entered their waters on Tuesday but now appears headed for the United States. Bahamian authorities say they decided not to intercept the vessel, and communications with those on board indicated that no one had been harmed in the incident.

U.S. Coast Guard Spokesman, Lieutenant Tony Russell, says U.S. laws will be upheld if the boat enters U.S. territorial waters.

"We are actively monitoring the vessel's actions and we are preparing an appropriate response," he said. "That response, keeping safety as the primary consideration, would encompass protecting the border security interests of the United States and enforcing U.S. laws."

Under U.S. law illegal Cuban migrants who are intercepted at sea are sent back to Cuba. Those who actually set foot on U-S soil are allowed to stay and apply for permanent residency.

U.S. officials have so far refused to comment about what they plan to do in this case. In April, Cuban authorities executed three men who tried and failed to hijack a ferry to the United States in Havana harbor.

In recent days U.S. officials have urged Cuban authorities to tighten security at Cuban ports and airports to prevent hijacking incidents.

On Tuesday, in second hijacking incident, three men accompanied by a woman and her two sons tried to seize a fishing boat from the port of La Coloma about 70 kilometers west of Havana. After other fishing boats blocked the vessel from leaving the harbor, gunfire erupted on board. Cuban authorities say the three men had shot each other to death and also wounded one of the boys.

Last week a U.S. jury found a Cuban man guilty of hijacking a plane to the United States earlier this year. Six other Cuban men are also facing trial in the United States on hijacking charges in a separate case.

U.S. officials say lax security in Cuba is responsible for this year's upsurge in hijackings, while Cuban authorities say U.S. laws, which grant Cubans asylum if they reach U.S. shores, are to blame for the rise in hijacking incidents.