The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- July 9, 1996

Cuban Officer Hijacks Plane to Guantanamo Naval Base

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A disgruntled Cuban officer opened fire on a Cuban domestic flight with 17 people aboard and ordered the pilot to fly to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where he asked for political asylum, U.S. officials said Monday.

Lt. Col. Jose Fernandez Pupo commandeered the aircraft Sunday shortly after takeoff from Santiago in eastern Cuba. A U.S. official said Fernandez Pupo discharged his weapon to convince the pilot he was serious.

After the plane landed at the base and personnel there deemed it safe for travel, it took off with the remaining passengers and crew and flew to its original destination, Guantanamo City, a few miles from the naval base.

Fernandez Pupo was undergoing questioning Monday at the base by officers of the U.S. Immigration Service. The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the interrogation. The hijacker reportedly told his interrogators he was a lieutenant colonel in Cuba's national police force, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

The Cuban-American National Foundation, an anti-communist group, called on the U.S. government to allow Fernandez Pupo "the fullest possible opportunity" to make his case for political asylum. It said in a statement that his return to Cuba "would be a de facto death sentence."

The Cuban government issued a statement saying it will observe the behavior of the United States concerning commitments it has made under various international agreements, including a migration accord signed in 1984. A Cuban official said he believes that agreement requires either the extradition or prosecution of those accused of hijackings and terrorist actions that endanger the lives of innocent people.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States "strongly condemns this act of air piracy. We condemn acts of air piracy wherever they occur in the world. And we condemn this one."

At the White House, spokesman Mike McCurry indicated the administration has three options: repatriation back to Cuba, prosecution by the United States or the granting of political asylum. Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cuba had asked through diplomatic channels that Fernandez Pupo be returned to Cuba. The official predicted that request would not be granted but that several factors must be taken into account in weighing future action.

Following a rash of hijackings of U.S. aircraft to Cuba a generation ago, the two countries reached an anti-hijacking agreement in 1973. The main element of the agreement was that hijackers would have to be prosecuted or extradited by the country where they were taken into custody.

President Fidel Castro allowed the agreement to lapse in 1977 after a Cuban aircraft with 73 persons aboard was blown up on a flight over the Caribbean. Castro blamed the October 1976 incident on the United States.

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