Cuban volunteer pilots prepared to put their lives on the line 4 killed were 1st casualties among anti-Castro group

February 26, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- Before an air mission over Havana last summer, Billy Schuss, a pilot and co-founder of Brothers to the Rescue, sat down with Mario de la Pena to make sure some things were clear. They would not land if the Cubans tried to force their plane down, he told Mr. de la Pena, 24, who was about to make his first flight in Cuban airspace. If they died, he said, that was their choice.

"I wanted to know his feelings," Mr. Schuss said. "He said, 'I'll take my chances.' "

On Saturday, Mr. de la Pena was one of four Brothers to the Rescue members killed when Cuban MiG jet fighters shot down their two Cessna planes over the Straits of Florida. The volunteer pilot group, experiencing its first casualties after about 1,800 flights, said the planes were on a routine search for Cubans fleeing the island for the United States on small boats.

But although the search-and-assist missions have been the trademark of the group since its founding in 1991, Brothers to the Rescue's work became more political as the need for rescues dropped dramatically after the decision by the Clinton administration last year to turn back all those leaving Cuba illegally by sea.

As the refugee flow dried up -- the Coast Guard intercepted only 27 Cubans last month -- the group turned to civil disobedience.

In their boldest action, Brothers to the Rescue pilots violated Cuban airspace last summer to drop leaflets over Havana encouraging Cubans to rise against Fidel Castro. U.S. aviation officials began an investigation of the group's leader, Jose Basulto.

While the group is among the most uncompromising anti-Castro organizations in the political spectrum of Cuban exiles -- its founders are veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 -- it describes its main purpose as saving lives. It had 15 pilots, five twin-engine planes and hundreds of volunteers who served as spotters before Saturday's incident, many of them Cuban but also Latin Americans from countries such as Peru and Argentina.

Many Cubans here were outraged by Cuba's shooting down of the planes, saying there was no excuse to harm unarmed pilots. "No matter how you slice it, it's a crime," said Frank Hernandez, a member of a veterans group.

The fleet of five Cessnas is now down to three, but yesterday, Mr. Basulto and Mr. Schuss left no doubt that the missions would continue. They said the United States should respond in the most severe manner to what Mr. Basulto termed "planned assassinations."

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