Many victims in hijacking return home

Small number of Cubans seek asylum, officials say

March 23, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI - Many of the Cuban passengers and crew members on a plane hijacked over Cuba and diverted to Key West, Fla., returned home yesterday, federal officials said.

The officials would not confirm how many left but said only a small number chose to remain in the United States and seek political asylum.

They will probably be allowed to stay so they can testify against the six men accused of commandeering the plane Wednesday at knifepoint, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

"The prosecution of this serious crime is the most important thing right now," she said.

The passengers and crew members had been held since early Thursday at the Krome Detention Center in West Miami-Dade.

The six Cuban men accused of storming the cockpit of the Cuban Aerotaxi DC-3 are being held in Key West on federal charges.

The Cuban-American National Foundation will talk with the men, said spokesman Joe Garcia.

"We may be lending preliminary legal assistance," Garcia said. "But we won't be representing them."

Garcia said he did not know exactly how many of the passengers and crew left yesterday, but he said it was a large group.

The Cuban government initially asked U.S. authorities to return the plane, its passengers, the crew and the alleged hijackers, but it expressed satisfaction Friday with the U.S. decision to prosecute the six men.

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