Objections unheard, Cubans walk out of aviation meeting

Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As United Nations investigators in Montreal unveiled a report critical of Cuba's decision to shoot down two U.S. civilian planes in February, Cuban diplomat Ricardo Alarcon abruptly halted the meeting Thursday, demanding that his objections be taken into account.

When leaders of the International Civil Aviation Organization said their report would not be amended, Alarcon stalked out.

``Unless we are here to discuss the report of the investigative commission and allow objections to be heard that could modify the document, then for us this meeting is over,'' Alarcon said.

The Cuban delegation later issued a statement calling the meeting ``part and parcel of a maneuver geared at attempting to legitimize a one-sided report and give the impression that justice is being served.''

The dispute came as the ICAO, the United Nations' aviation arm, formally presented the United States and Cuba with a 94-page document representing a three-month investigation into the Feb. 24 downing of two unarmed Cessnas by Cuban MiG fighters. Four Cuban-American volunteer pilots of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue group were killed in the incident.

In painstaking detail, the ICAO effectively bolstered the case of the Clinton administration that the two planes were in international airspace when they were shot down. The government of President Fidel Castro maintains the planes were within Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit.

U.N. action sought

Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff said Thursday the United States will seek action against Cuba at the U.N. Security Council.

``The unarmed civilian aircraft were shot down by the Cuban military in international airspace, [and] there was no justification for that outrageous action,'' Tarnoff said at a White House briefing. ``The Cubans did not attempt to follow standard international norms in warning the aircraft.''

The ICAO is scheduled to endorse the report Wednesday and send it to the 15-member Security Council.

A copy of the report was obtained by The Herald on Thursday. Among the highlights:

  • Cuba and the United States presented different radar records tracking three planes that left South Florida. Cuba's radar paths, recorded by hand, and the U.S. radar, recorded automatically, could not be reconciled.

  • The best eyewitness accounts came from crews of the cruise ship Majesty of the Seas and the fishing boat Tri-Liner. Accounts provided by the vessels placed the fallen planes in international waters, within four nautical miles of the U.S. estimate and 20 nautical miles from the Cuban estimate.

  • In the absence of satellite photos to pinpoint the location of the Majesty of the Seas, ICAO concluded the two U.S. planes were shot down nine and 10 miles beyond Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit, respectively.

  • The Cuban MiG fighters sent to intercept the U.S. planes violated international norms by failing to make a warning pass, failing to attempt radio contact and destroying the Cessnas rather than guiding them to safety.

  • There were huge disparities in the recordings of Cuban military radio communications provided by United States and Cuba. The Cuban tapes of pilot-to-ground communications are considerably shorter than the U.S. tapes of the same transmissions. The Cuban tapes are blank at a point where the U.S. tapes contain pilot talk of two vessels close to the site of the downed planes.

    ``There are gaps just like in the Watergate tapes,'' said Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who asserted that the Cuban recordings were doctored to remove incriminating evidence.

    Menendez said the United Nations should freeze all of its aid to Cuba as a result of harsh verdicts against the country by two U.N. bodies: the ICAO and the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission.

    Menendez said he would also press the Federal Aviation Administration to reinstate the pilot's license of Jose Basulto, the founder of Brothers to the Rescue, who flew the only plane that managed to escape the Cuban attack in February.

    The FAA revoked Basulto's license May 16 as he prepared for another flight. The government found that by entering Cuban airspace he had failed to observe Cuban aviation laws and had operated in ``a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life and property of another.''

    The ICAO report took note of the Brothers' numerous incursions into Cuban territory and of the numerous U.S. warnings for them to desist. It did not appear to criticize the United States for failing to rein in the pilots more swiftly.

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    Copyright 1996 The Miami Herald