Cuban refugees released from U.S. detention Plane's defectors still subject of hijacking debate

December 31, 1992|By New York Times News Service

MIAMI -- Forty-five Cubans who defected to the United State in an airliner have been released from federal custody after an intense debate in Washington about whether the pilot's diversion of a routine domestic commuter flight violated international hijacking agreements.

The Aero-Caribbean airliner landed at Miami International Airport Tuesday after passengers overpowered three crew members during a scheduled flight from Havana to the beach resort of Varadero. The plane's pilot, Carlos Cancio Porcel, was a leader in the defection plan.

The Cuban government criticized the diversion as a "terrorist act" of "aerial piracy" and accused the United States of violating international law.

After landing in the United States, Mr. Cancio and 47 other people on the plane who said they wanted to defect were taken to the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome detention center here. Three minors were released.

Last night, the remaining 45 people were released to relatives and friends.

The immigration service made no statement explaining its action.

The airliner, a Russian-made Antonov A-26, was returned to Cuba yesterday. Five people from Tuesday's flight who did not want to defect returned to Cuba last night aboard a second Cuban aircraft.

The 36-hour delay in releasing the participants in the defection had been loudly criticized by local politicians and Cuban exile leaders, who saw it as a sign of vacillation.

But legal experts suggested that officials in Washington were deeply divided over the best way to resolve the situation.

Beyond the fate of individuals, "there is a much larger issue here, an extremely touchy and critical issue," Billie Vincent, former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration, said yesterday.

"The real problem we face is what this portends for the future. We don't want to see these people go back, but by sanctioning the illegal diversion of a flight, we encourage this to happen again."

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