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8 Cuban Refugees Fly to Key West

National Guard fighter pilots order the small plane to land. INS is interviewing the group.

November 12, 2002|Anna Virtue and John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — A pilot seeking asylum crowded a group of his relatives into a small, government-owned cargo plane and flew Monday from Cuba to Florida, landing safely at Key West International Airport.

Two Florida National Guard F-16 fighters scrambled to intercept the yellow Soviet-made Antonov-2 Colt biplane once it appeared on U.S. radar screens after taking off from Pinar del Rio in western Cuba.

The fighter pilots ordered the aircraft to land as local police and federal agents waited alongside the runway.

Four men, three women and a 2-year-old girl were crammed aboard the small plane.

"We are interviewing the individuals who arrived aboard the plane and we will have more information to share with you in due course," said Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In the past, Cubans who reached the United States seeking asylum generally have been assured the right to stay and eventually apply for permanent residency.

Peter Sellers, vice president of Island City Flying Service, which is based at the airport, said the plane suddenly appeared in a cloudless blue sky, and landed as the jet fighters flew overhead.

"It is pretty busy on Veterans Day, and they actually shut down the airport for about 20 minutes because of all the activity," Sellers said.

He said that federal officials took the Cubans into a room for questioning, and after a while the pilot emerged and moved the plane to a different location at the airfield.

In Washington, a State Department official said that although it was not the lead agency handling the incident, "we may have some sort of advisory role down the line."

Officials of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said that once the fighters were mobilized, the agency was notified that the plane was coming to Florida.

After the landing, bomb-sniffing dogs searched the plane, but found no evidence of explosives or contraband.

But the flight was clearly uncomfortable. The aircraft was rigged to carry cargo and contained only three seats for passengers outside the cockpit, a local airline employee said.

"They seemed pretty glad to be here," Rick Ellson, an employee of Cape Air, an airline serving Key West, told WPLG-TV in Florida. "They had smiles on their faces, and were walking relaxed."

The Cuban government had no immediate comment about the incident.

In recent years, asylum seekers have used a variety of aircraft to leave the island, only a short flight from Florida.

In 1992, a defecting pilot landed a twin-engine transport operated by Cuba's Aero Caribbean, carrying 52 other people, in Miami.

Later, the co-pilot and four of those on board returned to Cuba with the aircraft.

A stolen crop duster carrying 10 people from Cuba crashed in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2000 when the pilot decided to ditch the plane, which was short on fuel.

Rescuers found nine people clinging to wreckage about 60 miles from Cuba, but one of the refugees drowned.

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Virtue reported from Miami, Goldman from New York.

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