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Hijacked Cuba DC-3 Escorted to Florida

U.S. fighter jets intercept the craft carrying 35 people. Six are held by the FBI.

March 20, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

Miami — U.S. fighter jets scrambled Wednesday evening as a hijacked Cuban passenger plane headed for the United States, then escorted the vintage propeller-driven aircraft with 35 people aboard to a safe landing in Key West, authorities said.

There were no reports of injuries and the six alleged hijackers were taken into custody by the FBI, authorities said. The passengers were being interviewed by U.S. Customs agents into the evening.

"The hijackers were separated fairly quickly from the passengers and crew and everyone is OK," said Becky Herrin, a spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department.

The DC-3, a plane from the World War II era, was first spotted by controllers at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

"At about 7:42 p.m., they observed an unidentified aircraft heading toward U.S. airspace from Cuba," she said. "At no time did they have voice contact with that flight."

The Miami controllers contacted their opposite numbers in Havana, who informed them that the plane, operated by a Cuban firm called Aero Taxi, had been on a domestic flight from the Isle of Youth to Havana when it apparently was hijacked, Bergen said.

The plane was carrying 29 passengers and six crew members, the FAA official said in an interview from Atlanta.

Jets from Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami were dispatched to intercept the plane and escorted it to Key West International Airport, where it landed without incident at 8:06 p.m. EST, Bergen said. Officials from the FBI, U.S. Customs, the Border Patrol, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department and other agencies were on hand, she said.

Robert Accerra, who works at the airport, said he watched the plane land.

"It was followed by three or four U.S. Navy jets," Accerra said. "The plane sat on the runway for about 15 minutes before the doors finally opened."

Key West Police spokesman Steve Torrence said authorities were out in force to greet the plane. The hijackers were armed with knives but gave up without incident, he said.

"It was a very, very easy surrender," Torrence said.

Bergen said she did not believe the recently heightened terrorist threat level meant U.S. authorities had been quicker to notice the unidentified plane or call on fighters to intercept it.

"Air traffic is always highly alert and observant about every aircraft in their airspace," she said.

Cubans have stolen or hijacked planes on a number of occasions to leave the communist-run island and reach the United States, where they usually seek asylum. The last Cuban plane to be diverted to the United States was a Soviet-era Antonov AN-2 biplane that was flown to Key West by a Cuban pilot.

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