US protest after shooting down of planes by Cuba


CUBAN MiG fighters shot down two Miami based light aircraft off Havana on Saturday, prompting angry street protests in Miami and a US Coast Guard search for four missing Cuban American crewmen. They belonged to the Brothers to the Rescue group, which overflies the Straits of Florida looking for fleeing Cuban rafters.

The group said the two Cessna four seaters were in international airspace, at least 15 miles from Cuba. The Cuban government countered that they had been shot down five to eight miles from Cuba, over the island's territorial waters, after ignoring warnings.

President Clinton, on an election campaign trip to the West Coast, condemned the incident in the strongest possible terms band said he had ordered US military forces to protect the rescue operation.

The Secretary of State, Mr Warren Christopher, said later the US will seek an emergency session of the UN Security Council to discuss Cuba's "blatant violation" of international law.

Mr Christopher said the US was satisfied that the two light aircraft had been in international air space when they were shot down. And while the United States would consult its friends and allies about its response, the administration was also considering actions it might take on it own against Cuba, Mr Christopher told reporters at the White House.

American fighter planes patrolled the straits yesterday, while the coast guard searched an area some 25 miles north west of Havana in international waters. However, hopes of finding any of the missing men alive appeared slim.

Passengers aboard a cruise ship said yesterday they saw the planes blown apart in the attack. "A missile hit the airplane and just blew it to pieces," a passenger said.

Cuba called the two Cessnas "pirate planes", and a Foreign Ministry statement said their shooting down was "a lesson to those who consider or carry out acts that tend to increase tensions between the US and Cuba".

US officials said privately that the Miami planes may have been headed to Cuba to fly dissidents out of the country. The officials also noted the Brothers had been warned several times by Cuba that they would be shot down if they approached the coast, particularly after they reached the Havana seafront last month and dropped anti Castro leaflets.

Mr Jose Basulto, founder and leader of the group, was flying a third plane and made it back with his co pilot and two volunteer spotters. He insisted all three planes had been at least 15 miles from the Cuban coast in clear weather at 3.15 p.m. on Saturday when he saw MiGs diving, spotted puffs of smoke and hauled his own plane into clouds for cover.