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Hundreds mourn, appeal for justice a year after four Americans downed

February 25, 1997

OPA-LOCKA, Fla. (AP) _ Eva Barbas broke down sobbing Monday as a group of airplanes took off for an aerial memorial to her son and three other pilots who were shot down at sea by Cuban MiG fighters one year ago.

``Until I see Cuba free, like Pablito wanted, I will not rest,″ said Mrs. Barbas, whose son, Pablo Morales, was one of four men killed on Feb. 24, 1996.

About 500 people gathered at the Opa-Locka Airport near Miami for the memorial to the members of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban exile group formed to search for rafters in the 90 miles of open water between Cuba and Florida.

Six Brothers planes took off on a flight near Cuba’s international boundary, where the two small Cessnas were shot down. They returned safely around 6 p.m. after saying a prayer, dropping flowers and shooting two flares to symbolize the down planes.

``It was a very emotional thing. We were actually over the graveyard where they were buried,″ said the group’s president, Jose Basulto. ``They will be remembered for what they are _ heroes.″

The State Department had urged both Cuba and the exile group to use restraint.

The Havana government said the Cessnas were shot down because they violated Cuban airspace. Cuban exiles and the United States said the shootdown, recorded on U.S. Customs radar, happened over international waters.

The attack helped lead to passage of tough new U.S. trade restrictions against countries that do business with Cuba and growing tensions with U.S. allies over that punitive trade law.

The U.N. Security Council deplored the attack as a violation of international law, but did not condemn Cuba.

The attack killed Morales and Carlos Costa, both 29, Mario de la Pena, 24, and Armando Alejandre Jr., 45. All but Morales were U.S. citizens.

In a statement released by the White House and read at the memorial by Alejandre’s widow, Cristina, President Clinton said the shootdown and continuing repression in Cuba illustrate ``the need to continue working for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.″

Basulto told the crowd before the trip that the deaths were not in vain.

``In their memory we call upon the world’s public opinion to seek sanctions against the terrorist regime that has ruled Cuba for almost four decades,″ he said.

Basulto was in a third plane on the day of the attack but escaped and returned to Florida. He flew as a passenger on Monday’s memorial flight because his pilot’s license was revoked last fall for violating Cuban airspace.

The four who died also were remembered Monday at a bridge dedication in Miami’s predominantly Cuban suburb of Sweetwater, the display of a quilt dedicated to victims of political persecution in Cuba, and a mass at a Miami church.

``We want them to be remembered,″ said Mirta Mendez, Costa’s sister. ``We want the whole world to know the truth of what happened that day _ that they were murdered over international waters.″