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US, Cuba Trade Words Over 2nd Hijacking of Airliner - 2003-04-01

The U.S. and Cuban governments are exchanging angry comments after the second hijacking of a Cuban airliner to the United States in the span of two weeks. Cuba said U.S. immigration policy is encouraging the incidents, while the Bush administration said Cuban police should clamp down on airport security, rather than political dissidents.

The two hijackings have further complicated a U.S.-Cuban relationship already close to an all-time low because of what officials here say is the most severe crackdown on dissent in Cuba in many years.

In the latest incident, a Cuban man who claimed to have two hand grenades commandeered a domestic airliner Monday night on a flight that originated at Cuba's southern Island of Youth.

The man demanded to be taken to Miami but was told there was insufficient fuel for the trip and the plane a Russian-made AN-24 turboprop with 46 passengers and crew - went to its original destination, Havana, for refueling.

A tense 12-hour standoff ensued at the Havana airport. In an unusual move, Cuban authorities asked the chief of the U.S. diplomatic interests section in Havana, James Cason, to come to the airport, where he told the hijacker by radio he would be arrested and face prosecution for air piracy if he took the plane to the United States.

The man released 15 passengers in Havana but despite Mr. Cason's warning, he ordered the plane flown on the United States where it landed at Key West escorted by U.S. fighter planes. The hijacker was arrested by U.S. authorities and the remaining passengers and crew members safely disembarked.

The incident was similar to a March 19 hijacking of an aging DC-Three Cuban plane to Key West. The six hijackers in that case were also arrested and facing U.S. prosecution, while several passengers opted to remain in the United States under U.S. policy that allows Cubans reaching U.S. soil to stay and seek residency.

In a statement late Monday, the Cuban government accused the United States of encouraging hijackings through its immigration policy and the allegedly-lax treatment of the six Cubans arrested in the March 19 case.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said U.S. policy is that Cubans seeking to come to the United States should do so only through "safe, legal and orderly means."

He said Cubans are fleeing the country because of a lack of political and economic freedom, and he suggested that Cuban police would be more productively employed in securing the country's airports, rather than arresting dissidents. "Two hijackings in two weeks indicates that there's a lack of airport security. And while they're using police and security forces to arrest human rights activists, people promoting democracy, and journalists, they might better use those individuals to follow what they should be trained to do. And that is to make sure that law are abided by and that their airports are secure and not the subject of hijackings," Mr. Reeker said.

Mr. Reeker said the Fidel Castro government has arrested some 90 opposition activists in recent weeks in what he said is probably the worst wave of political repression in the hemisphere in the last decade.

The Cuban government has accused many of those detained of conspiring with the chief U.S. diplomat in Havana, Mr. Cason, who has angered authorities by traveling widely in Cuba meeting political dissidents.