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Cubans Freed After Second Keys Landing

December 17, 2006

MIAMI (AP) _ A group of Cuban refugees was released Saturday, a day after landing, some for the second time in a year, at a derelict bridge in the Florida Keys that authorities initially said wasn’t U.S. soil.

Among them was 14-year-old Osniel Hernandez, who headed to the home of his mother, Mariela Conesa, in the Miami suburb of Hialeah. They hadn’t seen each other since she boarded a homemade raft in 1998.

``I feel happy, very happy because I finally get to be with my mother,″ a shy Osniel said Saturday after spending the morning at his mother’s apartment in the Miami suburb of Hialeah.

The boy, his father and 14 other Cuban immigrants arrived in the Florida Keys early Friday in a makeshift boat.

In January, the boy and his father, Marino Hernandez, were among 15 immigrants who were sent back to Cuba because U.S. officials said the abandoned bridge they’d reached didn’t count as American soil.

Under the U.S. government’s wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cuban immigrants picked up at sea are sent back to the island, while those who touch U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay.

Conesa and other relatives sued, and a federal judge ruled against the Department of Homeland Security’s decision. Officials agreed to provide the group visas, but by then Osniel and the others were back home and the Cuban government said it wouldn’t allow them to leave for four more years.

Among the group to return was Tomas Perdomo, 43, a Cuban dissident with the Independent Movement for an Alternative Option. He said he’d tried to explain to U.S. authorities about his political activities in January, but his efforts were in vain.

Conesa said never imagined it would take so long to be reunited with her son.

In 1998, Conesa and Hernandez had separated amicably and she’d planned to take Osniel _ then 6 years old _ with her on the raft she and a dozen others had built, but at the last minute the organizers said no children would be allowed on the voyage.

``I cried all the way from my house to the beach,″ Conesa recently recalled. ``I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my son.″

Conesa recalled the night last January when Osniel reached the abandoned Old Seven Mile Bridge and spoke to her by cell phone.

``He got on the phone and said, ‘Don’t cry, Mama. I’m OK.’ That’s when I realized he had grown up.″

After that call, she waited until dawn to drive to the bridge, but by then the group had been picked up by the Coast Guard.

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