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Search Continues for Four Shot Down by Cuban MIGs

February 25, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ Enel Puentes and six friends bobbed in the Straits of Florida for three days in July 1994 on a tin-can and inner-tube raft before they saw the airplane that saved their lives.

The Brothers to the Rescue pilot circled the Cuban refugees a few times then dropped a package of flares and food and a note that said the Coast Guard was on its way.

On Sunday, Puentes and nearly 2,000 Cuban exiles gathered at the headquarters of the volunteer search and rescue group to protest the downing of two aircraft Saturday by Cuban government fighter planes.

``The feeling I felt that day _ the admiration, respect _ it was the same that made me come here today,″ said Puentes, 29. ``Only now there is sadness.″

A similar protest in New York attracted about 150 people and resulted in 13 arrests when protesters refused to move behind police barricades.

As the Coast Guard and Navy continued to search international waters off Havana for four people, some passengers on a cruise ship in the area Saturday told how the Cuban MiGs shot down the two single-engine planes in the waters separating Cuba and Florida.

``The MiG just appeared from nowhere and came and he sent the rocket out, and (there was) smoke, flame all over,″ Guven Yalcints of Knoxville, Tenn., told Miami television station WSVN.

John Ciurciu of Elmwood Park, N.J., another passenger on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship, added: ``Then I saw another white plane, like trying to get away from something and all of a sudden it shot it down. Another plane came from a lower altitude and just shot it away.″

Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Sunday said the Clinton administration was calling on the United Nations to discuss punitive actions against Cuba, though he didn’t elaborate.

``The actions they took yesterday were not justified under any circumstances,″ Christopher said at a White House news conference. He said the United States believes the planes were in international waters _ not over Cuban territory _ when they were shot down.

Christopher said the United States believes the planes were in international air space when they were shot down. But senior administration aides said at least one of the three planes entered Cuban air space at some point before the shoot-down.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry said in statement issued Sunday that said its government planes shot down two ``pirate″ planes that had violated its airspace, coming within 5 to 8 miles northwest of Havana.

``These violations have taken place numerous times despite repeated warnings that they could not be tolerated and that patience has its limits,″ the statement read.

``The downing of the two pirate planes must serve as a lesson to those who consider or carry out acts which tend to increase tensions between the United States and Cuba.″

Reports from within the island said all was calm as residents prepared to celebrate an extended Carnival on Sunday.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega called for ``common sense and moderation″ to avoid more bloodshed and deplored the apparent deaths of the four Cuban exiles.

Nothing was calm at Opa-locka Airport _ headquarters for Brothers to the Rescue _ where exiles waved Cuban flags and sang the Cuban anthem, occasionally breaking into chants of ``asesino″ _ assassin.

The exiles cheered as Florida congressional members urged an international blockade of the island much like the one the United States spearheaded to topple the Haitian military regime that ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.

``Why is the Cuban regime meritorious of any different kid glove treatment?″ asked Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican.

Pilots from Brothers to the Rescue dropped leaflets over Havana last July and again in January urging peaceful protest to the communist regime of President Fidel Castro.

Jose Basulto, the one surviving pilot and the head of the rescue group, has been investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration for the flyovers, but no action has been taken against him.

On Sunday, he repeated that the planes were on a routine search and rescue mission, looking for rafters over international waters. He and his crew criticized the Clinton administration for suggesting Saturday that they had changed their flight plan at the last minute to head toward Havana.

``This is not so,″ said Sylvia Iriondo, a leading Cuban exile who was in Basulto’s plane. ``They have the flight plan. The flight plan was approved.″

Basulto played a copy of the flight recorder tape that he said proved Cuban aviation officials knew their position was north of the 12-mile limit that Cuba claims as its sovereign territory. All that was audible, however, were a few coordinate readings and the final communication with one of the planes.

After seeing military flares and one or possibly two MiG fighter planes cross in front of the windshield, Basulto said: ``We saw a large ball of smoke and flames in the water. We in our hearts ceased to believe what we were seeing.″

As crews searched for the four people shot down, they found nothing more than two oil slicks, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Jeff Hall. Missing were Mario de la Pena, Armando Alejandre, a Vietnam veteran, Pablo Morales and Carlos Costas.

``I think it was just another crime, another crime that Castro has committed,″ said Miriam de la Pena, Mario’s mother. ``And my son just happened to be one of the pilots.″

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