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Cuban Fighters Down 2 Planes Owned by Exiles


MIAMI — Two small aircraft belonging to a Miami-based Cuban exile group were shot down by Cuban fighter jets Saturday off the north coast of the island, U.S. officials said.

A U.S. military plane sent to search the area just before sunset spotted two oil slicks in international waters 15 to 18 miles off the Cuban coast, according to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Woodring in Miami.

Woodring said the Coast Guard received a call about 3:45 p.m. EST from the Federal Aviation Administration, which reported that two aircraft of the exile organization Brothers to the Rescue had been shot down, apparently by Cuban jets. A third plane, carrying organization leader Jose Basulto, escaped Cuban fire and returned to Florida.

"Something very tragic that we have dreaded for a long time, I believe happened today," said Basulto, red-eyed and near tears, after he emerged from questioning by U.S. Customs and federal aviation officials late Saturday at Opa-Locka Airport in north Miami.

Basulto said he did not actually see Cuban jets fire on the two exile planes, which he said were out of his sight as the group conducted routine "search-and-rescue operations" 15 to 20 miles off the Cuban coast. But, he said, "I strongly believe that Cuban MIGs shot down two Brothers aircraft in international waters.

"We were all in international waters," he said.

In Seattle, President Clinton condemned the action "in the strongest possible terms."

"We are continuing to investigate the circumstances of the incident, including the airplanes' flight plan and the flight route and what, if any, warnings were given," he said.

He said he had ordered the Coast Guard units in the area to undertake search-and-rescue operations and ordered other military forces to protect them. U.S. Air Force F-16s from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., were dispatched to fly a protective operation above the search area in international waters beyond Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit.

Clinton also said he had asked the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which operates in place of an embassy because the United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, "to seek an immediate explanation."

Cuban government officials had no immediate comment Saturday on the incident, which was not mentioned on the island's evening news broadcasts.

Ironically, Basulto said, the group had been planning to fly as usual to the Bahamas, where each Saturday they dropped supplies to Cuban refugees staying in camps near Nassau. Bahamian authorities, however, denied them landing rights Saturday because Cuban officials were visiting.

At that point, Basulto said, he and the other two pilots decided to fly toward the Cuban coast to look for rafters.

Basulto insisted the three planes were well outside Cuban territory, and they had contacted Cuban flight controllers to report their location. At that point, Basulto said, "we were threatened as usual."

Basulto did not explain the threats. He said he informed the Cubans that he would proceed south, toward the island. Fifteen miles north of the coast, he said, he saw a MIG, then two distant "smoke balls."

After losing contact with the other pilots, Basulto said, "we went into the clouds because we feared something dreadful had happened." Basulto said he then contacted U.S. authorities to report the incident, and he and three others aboard his plane returned to Miami.

Basulto identified those aboard the missing planes as Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario Pena and Armando Alejandre Jr.

For the past five years, Brothers to the Rescue volunteer pilots have patrolled the Florida Strait regularly in hopes of finding and saving refugees fleeing the Communist island on makeshift rafts. But on at least two occasions in the past year, the group's aircraft reportedly have buzzed Havana to drop leaflets decrying President Fidel Castro, prompting warnings from the hard-line leader that any aircraft violating the country's airspace would be shot down.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the three Cessna 337 Skymaster aircraft had left Florida after filing flight plans with the FAA indicating a round trip from the town of Opa-Locka toward Cuba and back.

"They were engaged . . . 18 miles north of Havana, just outside the [Cuban] territorial limit," McCurry said.

A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said Navy ships were en route to the area. "U.S. Atlantic Command forces are responding to the reported downing of two civilian aircraft by Cuban fighters," said Navy Capt. Craig Quigley, who is attached to the command in Norfolk, Va.

With five small planes, and an annual operating budget of about $1 million, the exile group has become well-known in Miami for its militant anti-Castro politics as well as its efforts to aid those trying to leave the island. Brothers to the Rescue banners and bumper stickers are ubiquitous in Miami.

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