In a pre-dawn strike that was stunning in its swiftness after months of impasse, armed federal agents snatched a screaming Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives yesterday morning and reunited him with his father at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The streets of the Little Havana neighborhood erupted in anguished and sometimes violent protest as Elian was whisked into a van, then a plane and, several hours later, the arms of his tearful father. Juan Miguel Gonzalez had not seen his son in the five months since the boy's mother took him aboard a rickety boat carrying Cubans escaping their homeland.
"[Elian] looked very happy, and Juan Miguel was crying," a Justice Department official said, describing a scene in which the father carried his son off the plane, the boy's arms tightly wrapped around him.
The Miami relatives soon trailed Elian to Washington, refusing to give up their claims on the boy.
The warm father-son reunion at Andrews was in marked contrast to the 5: 15 a.m. storming of the Little Havana home of Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle with whom Elian had lived since being rescued off the coast of Florida, a survivor of the journey in which his mother and 10 other passengers drowned.
The raid came after months of frustration for Attorney General Janet Reno, who had traveled to her native Miami to seek a peaceful transfer of the boy and extended several deadlines for Elian's relatives to comply with federal rulings turning custody over to his father.
"Every step of the way, the Miami relatives kept moving the goal post and raising more hurdles," Reno said yesterday morning.
And so she sent armed agents to forcibly enter the white stucco house, startling family members and others inside who were negotiating for a meeting with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. A family friend grabbed a frightened and confused Elian and ran into a bedroom where they cowered in a closet until an agent, in riot gear and pointing an assault weapon, confronted them.
"I ran to the bedroom ... just to try to protect this little boy. Elian was screaming: `Help me! Help me!'" said an emotional Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who since rescuing Elian has joined the boy's extended Miami family.
To his great-aunt Angela, also in the room, Elian cried out, "Que esta pasando?" "What's happening?"
Special Agent Betty A. Mills carried the crying boy from the home into a white van as some of the protesters around the house began throwing chairs and other objects at the vehicle. Officers kept the crowd back with pepper spray.
As advised by therapists earlier, the agent reportedly whispered to the boy in Spanish as she carried him away, telling him that although he must be scared, this would be better soon and he would see his "papa."
Three minutes after the raid began, the eight agents and Elian were gone, en route to nearby Watson Island, where they boarded a helicopter to Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. There, a doctor examined Elian to make sure he had not been injured.
Elian was then put on a plane for Washington, accompanied by Mills, a psychiatrist and other Immigration and Naturalization Service representatives. They gave Elian some Play-Doh -- which psychologists say is comforting for an anxious child to squeeze -- a toy airplane and refreshments. As further assurance, he was shown a map of where he was going and a watch to mark how long it would take.
Meanwhile, the house he had left became the center of a growing protest of Cuban-Americans, outraged that Elian had been snatched from their midst during Easter weekend -- perhaps to be returned to Cuba. Only about 100 protesters were outside the house when the federal agents arrived. But as word of the seizure spread, the crowd and the indignation grew.
Demonstrators continued to swarm the neighborhood throughout the day as police threw up roadblocks to contain the protest to about 35 blocks.
More than 180 people were arrested as protesters set more than 100 fires, uprooted concrete benches and assaulted police officers.
"This is terrible," said Cristina Valdes, 67, who was among dozens of people venting their anger by banging on a parked van. "I'm ashamed to be an American. Clinton is a coward, coward, coward."
Scores of protesters similarly took to the streets of New York City and Union City, N.J., home to a large number of Cuban-American exiles, to denounce the strong-arm removal of Elian
But in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro has been staging huge rallies calling for the boy's return, citizens wept and cheered that Elian was removed from the family that has been branded "kidnappers."
In Washington, protesters decried the raid and welcomed the arrival from Miami of Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter Marisleysis at Reagan Washington National Airport. The relatives were met in Washington by a supporter, Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, but it was not known whether they would be allowed to see Elian.