The following article appeared today, June 20, 1996, in the front page of the Miami Herald

Inquiry on planes a blow to Castro

Panel: Attack not in Cuban territory

Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A United Nations inquiry into Cuba's downing of two U.S. civilian aircraft Feb. 24 backs up the U.S. claim that the incident occurred over international waters, and not in Cuban territory.

Clinton administration and congressional sources have told The Herald this conclusion was reached by the United Nations' Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.

It will deliver its conclusions separately to U.S. and Cuban diplomats later this week. Cuban diplomat Ricardo Alarcon is scheduled to be in Montreal today in preparation for the informal briefing.

The report strikes a blow at the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro, which has argued that it acted in defense of Cuba's airspace. Four volunteer pilots of Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban exile group, died when Cuban air force MiG fighters downed the two unarmed planes.

Officials who have seen a preliminary draft of the report characterized it as ``favorable'' to the United States, which decried the attack as a ``blatant violation of international law . . . and civilized behavior.''

Bolstered by findings of the ICAO -- an arm of the United Nations -- the Clinton administration plans to seek action from the U.N. Security Council, including ``condemnation, reparations and a threat of future Security Council action following [any repetition of the] incident,'' one administration official said.

Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff is scheduled to discuss the investigation at a press briefing today, officials said.

Both Cuba and the United States had sought an investigation by the ICAO to determine which government had provided an accurate account of events. The four Cuban Americans killed in the incident were mourned as martyrs by many Miami exiles.

ICAO investigators traveled to Washington and Havana during their three-month investigation. The Clinton administration provided detailed maps of the routes flown by the planes and even tapes of transmissions between Cuban MiG pilots and their ground control. Madeleine Albright, the scrappy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, endeared herself to much of Cuban Miami by producing a transcript of a gloating Cuban pilot as his MiG fired on one of the planes. Turning his earthy boast against him, Albright declared: ``This isn't cojones, this is cowardice.'' The Castro government, in contrast, waited more than a week to provide a substantiated account of its claim that the planes had been shot down within 12 miles of Cuban shores, the internationally recognized territorial limit.

On March 3, Havana released a videotape -- produced with haunting music and elaborate graphics -- that presented its ``proof'' that the planes were shot down in Cuban airspace. The tape showed a black leather flight bag, an English-language aviation chart and an electric battery charger, all of which were said to have been collected 9.3 miles off the Cuban coast at 10 a.m. the day after the attack.

Doctored transcripts?

One congressional source familiar with the ICAO report said Wednesday that the Cuban government appears to have doctored transcripts of conversations between the MiG pilots and their ground control officer, who issued the command to fire.

``It's one of the largest gaps anybody's ever heard,'' said the source, who asked not to be identified.

Meanwhile, Cuban officials said they had demonstrated great restraint at not firing on previous flights by Brothers to the Rescue. Last July and twice in January, Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto and colleagues had flown over Havana, dropping anti-Castro leaflets.

After the Jan. 13 flight, Castro said he and his military chiefs had concluded that such violations of Cuban sovereignty ``cannot happen again.''

``It was so humiliating,'' the Cuban leader said later in a magazine interview. ``The U.S. would not have tolerated it if Washington's airspace had been violated by small airplanes.''

U.S. criticized

While concluding that the Feb. 24 attack was unjustified and illegal, the ICAO investigators nevertheless criticize the United States for failing to rein in the exile pilots.

``They hit us a little bit on the fact that the U.S. should have done a little bit more a little bit earlier to keep them out of Cuban airspace,'' one U.S. official said. Until last month, the Clinton administration had been reluctant to crack down on Basulto's flights. Federal aviation officials argued that a ban on Basulto's flights could be challenged as illegal prior restraint, and President Clinton's political handlers worried about clipping the wings of an exile hero.

In addition to the fallen airmen, another casualty of the Feb. 24 incident was the Clinton administration's carrot-and-stick policy toward Cuba. After the downing, Clinton adopted a tougher stance, signing the embargo-tightening Helms-Burton bill into law and dousing any hope of rapprochement between him and Castro.

On May 16, the Federal Aviation Administration -- with a nod from the White House -- revoked Basulto's pilot's license.

The ICAO plans to present its formal findings in a joint meeting with both Cuban and U.S. envoys next week.

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