Posted at 7:41 a.m. EDT Saturday, August 24, 1996

Exile Group to Resume Air Patrols as Cubans Keep Fleeing

MIAMI -- (AP) -- An exile group whose planes were shot down by Cuba in February plans to resume air patrols of the Florida Straits to search for Cuban rafters. Brothers to the Rescue will begin weekly search and rescue flights on Saturday, six months after Cuban military planes shot down two of the group's unarmed civilian aircraft, killing four people. The exile group suspended flights after the incident, which touched off an international furor and prompted stiffer U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. ``Evidently Cubans are still taking to the sea and I don't know if the U.S. Coast Guard doesn't have enough assets, but they (Cubans) are arriving and they are drowning,'' said Arnaldo Iglesias, secretary of the exile group. ``We are just exercising our right to fly in international airspace,'' said Iglesias, who was in the only Brothers' plane that returned safely on Feb. 24. ``And also, this being the six month anniversary, we just want to pay our respects.'' The volunteer group plans to send three planes to drop a wreath of flowers into the water at the approximate spot where its planes were shot down. The planes will carry equipment allowing them to be tracked, Iglesias said. In Washington, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the government has repeatedly warned the group to remain in international airspace. ``Obviously, Americans are free to express themselves and, you know, if there were to be a wreath dropping in international waters, that would not pose a problem,'' Davies said. ``But the warnings that we issued back after the shootdown by the Cuban government still stand in terms of taking care not to enter Cuban airspace, Cuban territorial waters.'' An average of two dozen Cubans are plucked from boats headed to the United States each month, said Petty Officer Mark Mackowiak, spokesman for the Coast Guard in Miami, which covers all of the Caribbean and most of Florida. On Aug. 12, a 47-year-old mother and a 16-month-old infant drowned after a boat carrying 31 Cubans capsized in the Florida Straits. Two other passengers left the boat in search of help and haven't been seen since. Another seven Cubans survived high seas to land in the Florida Keys Wednesday and will have the chance to apply to stay in the United States. According to U.S. policy, rafters intercepted at sea, except for a very few cases, are returned to Cuba. Migrants who make it to land can ask immigration authorities to be allowed to stay. Davies confirmed the policy Thursday after Cuban authorities complained about the U.S. refusal thus far to repatriate 11 Cubans who were rescued from the capsized boat. Relatives of the two victims were allowed to go to South Florida, where the remains were taken. Others were taken to the same destination because of illness. This has produced speculation in Cuba that the United States may be trying to provoke an exodus from Cuba similar to the one that occurred in 1994. Cuba also is seeking the return of three Cubans who hijacked a small plane which crashed into the Gulf of Mexico last Friday after being chased by a U.S. Customs plane. But the U.S. government has decided to prosecute the three. They were indicted Thursday on air piracy charges.

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1996 The Miami Herald.