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Commandos Dispatched to Prison : Official Vows No Raid if Hostages Are Not Harmed

November 26, 1987|BARRY BEARAK and TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writers

ATLANTA — Army commandos have been sent to the besieged federal penitentiary here, but a U.S. official said Wednesday that no effort will be made to storm the prison unless rioting Cuban inmates harm any of their 94 hostages.

That kind of tense standoff also continued at the federal detention center in Oakdale, La., where another 28 hostages are being held by prisoners who have mutinied rather than face return to Cuba.

The 100 Army specialists were flown to Atlanta from Ft. Bragg, N.C. They are trained in explosives and diversionary attacks, but officials said they are present only to serve as advisers.

"Any kind of assault, if it comes, will be by federal law enforcement people," a Pentagon spokesman said.

FBI Sends Rescue Team

The FBI dispatched its specially trained, 50-man hostage rescue team to Atlanta on Tuesday. There, they were joined by an additional 50 members of the federal marshals' Special Operations Group.

Just before 9 p.m., prisoners apparently set a diversionary fire as they attempted to cut through a galvanized fence and gain access to another cellblock, but were driven back by federal officers.

Presumably, the prisoners were trying to get more space to occupy--and make it more difficult to attack those cellblocks they already control.

Minutes after the incident, reports circulated across police scanners, advising officials that an attempt to take Cellblock B had been repulsed.

Vexing Negotiations

"We have control of B cell," officials in the guard tower were informed by officers on the scene.

Despite Wednesday night's events and vexing negotiations--hampered by the Cubans' splintered leadership--prison officials said they still hope for a peaceful end to the revolt, which is in its fourth day in Atlanta, its sixth in Oakdale.

The Louisiana situation appears less dangerous than Atlanta's. "We think the Oakdale leadership has crystallized," J. Michael Quinlan, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said at a press conference in Washington.

Asked how federal officials at both facilities allowed the current situation to develop, he replied: "There's no need to second-guess what should have been done. We can do that at a later time."

Pressed on how long the crisis will be permitted to go on before an assault is ordered, Quinlan said: "My patience is endless. I think that the situation will go on so long as the hostages are unharmed."

The 1,000 Cubans at Oakdale rioted a day after the State Department announced an agreement with Havana, calling for the return of about 2,500 inmates who had come to America from Mariel in a 1980 boat lift.

Two days later, the 1,400 Cuban inmates in Atlanta took over much of the 85-year-old federal prison here, torching many of the buildings behind the thick, 17-foot-high walls.

The death toll stands at one. An Atlanta prisoner was shot in the head. The bullet was apparently fired by a law enforcement officer, although that is still not certain, a Justice Department official said.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Wednesday that President Reagan is "very concerned" about the explosive situations.

Fitzwater said the President feels "all contingency measures" should be taken in the event of continuing violence, but refused to specify any plans.

"As we go through this, we face a situation of daily, hourly and momentary changes," he said.

A Dire Situation

In Atlanta, the situation remained dire. Late Tuesday night, the inmates gained control of the penitentiary hospital, where 25 hospital employees had barricaded themselves in the upper floor of a two-story building.

In the morning, the Cubans apparently began a search for food. They worried about sharpshooters. One of the hostages--a prison guard--was overheard expressing his fears in a radio transmission monitored outside the prison.

"They are going to kill us," he warned in a quavering voice. "The only thing they want to do is go in the warehouse and get some food for us. . . . "

He pleaded for caution.

"They are ready to die, die right now," he said. "Please, don't do anything stupid."

He said the hostages are being treated well.

"Believe me, we've got some respect in there," he said. "But if y'all do anything stupid, they're going to kill us."

Later in the day, the inmates asked FBI assault teams not to shoot at them as they moved from building to building in search of other dead bodies. They found none.

The prisoners, as well as their hostages, are reportedly spread throughout the prison, making an assault more difficult.

It is unclear what percentage of the Cuban inmates enthusiastically support the takeover. Throughout Wednesday, dozens of Cuban prisoners gave themselves up. Observers put the total at more than 210.

The men were manacled and marched down the front steps to buses. Some pressed their hands together in gestures of thanks, apparently glad to be away from the tense situation.

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