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Hijacked Cuban Plane Takes Off

April 1, 2003

HAVANA (AP) _ A Cuban plane hijacked by a man claiming to have two grenades and demanding to go to the United States took off Tuesday after a group of passengers safely left the craft following a tense night of negotiations.

The Soviet-made twin-engine AN-24 took off from Jose Marti International Airport about 10:45 a.m. EDT for Florida, apparently with the hijacker still aboard.

Christopher White, spokesman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, said the plane had a U.S. military escort as it headed to Key West International Airport with 25 passengers and six crew members aboard.

SWAT teams from the FBI and the U.S. Customs Department were being mobilized for the airline’s arrival, an FBI spokeswoman said.

In Havana earlier in the morning, two separate groups of as many as two dozen passengers, including a woman with a small child in her arms, jumped from the open back hatch of the plane into the arms of emergency workers below and were taken off the runway in buses.

The exact number of those who left the plane was impossible to determine from several hundred yards away. Cuban authorities originally had reported there were six children among the 46 people on the craft.

Shortly before the plane took off, two white cars drove onto the tarmac and a man got out of one and handed three large plastic bags filled with unknown contents to someone inside the plane.

It was not immediately clear what had happened aboard the plane that led to the release of the passengers after the hijacking drama that began almost 12 hours before when a man claiming to be armed with grenades demanded to be flown to Florida.

The Cuban Airlines AN-24 was hijacked late Monday on a flight from Cuba’s small Isle of Youth to Havana but was forced to land in the capital because it lacked sufficient fuel to make it to the United States, Cuban authorities said.

The plane spent the night on a tarmac at the Havana airport and shortly after daybreak, a tank with a hose was rolled out onto the tarmac and appeared to be refueling the craft.

The plane for a time was surrounded by several dozen uniformed police officers, and two fire trucks and numerous ambulances were parked nearby.

It would be extremely difficult for an average citizen to get access to grenades in communist-run Cuba, where such weapons are heavily guarded by the military. It was also unclear how anyone would be able to get a pair of grenades through the heavy security checks at Cuba’s airports, especially less than two weeks after a successful hijacking on the same route of a passenger plane to the United States.

All incoming and outgoing air traffic at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport was suspended during negotiations.

A government statement released early Tuesday said the Soviet-made Cuban Airlines plane was on a regular passenger flight from the Isle of Youth’s main city of Nueva Gerona when the pilot reported that the craft was being hijacked to the United States by a man armed with grenades.

``The Cuban authorities, for their part, will undertake the maximum effort to find a solution that preserves the safety and lives of passengers and crew members,″ said the statement.

The statement blamed the hijacking attempt on what Havana says is the lax treatment that six other suspected hijackers received last month after successfully forcing another passenger plane from Cuba to Key West, Florida, at knifepoint.

The suspects in the earlier successful hijack were charged with conspiracy to seize an aircraft by force and violence and face a minimum of up to 20 years in federal prison. They were granted bond, but remain behind bars because they have been unable to come up with the money.

Cuban authorities were pleased that American officials decided to charge the six but were enraged last week when a federal judge decided to set bond over the objections of prosecutors.

``The entire responsibility of what could happen (in the latest hijack attempt) will fall on the government of that country,″ the Cuban statement said of the United States.

In that earlier hijacking, six crew members and 25 passengers were on a twin-engine Douglas DC-3 on the same route on March 19 when knife-wielding hijackers took control of the plane as it descended toward Havana after a trip from the Isle of Youth. They diverted the plane to Key West.

Update hourly