MIAMI (AP) _ The Justice Department threatened to take Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives Monday, as a crowd gathered outside the boy's Little Havana home, ready to form a human chain if necessary.

The risk of a confrontation over the 6-year-old appeared to grow as the government and the Miami relatives traded accusations. The relatives were so worried that Elian would be taken away that they kept him home from school.

Attorney General Janet Reno has demanded that the Miami relatives pursue any court appeals rapidly and promise to surrender Elian for return to his father in Cuba if they lose.

On Monday, the relatives filed their latest appeal _ and asked that the case get expedited handling _ but they have not addressed the other demand.

``That being so, the INS is under no obligation to maintain the current arrangement,'' the government wrote in response, referring to the deal giving Elian's great-uncle custody in the meantime.

Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman would not say what the government would do next. She said the department would send the family a letter outlining its plans.

The agency has made it clear would not want to do anything to traumatize the boy or provoke Miami's large Cuban community.

Meanwhile, about 100 people gathered outside Elian's home, though by evening the crowd had dwindled to fewer than 50. Someone put a 15-foot banner in front of the house with a drawing of Elian and a message: ``I just want to live in freedom.''

Many of the protesters responded to a call by the Democracy Movement, an anti-Castro group, to be prepared to form a human chain around the home if the government tries to remove the child and send him back to his father in Cuba.

``There are a lot of people who aren't willing to kill but are willing to die only for the child's rights,'' said Raul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement.

In an apparent effort to increase American support for their battle to keep Elian, the child's relatives last week allowed ABC's Diane Sawyer to spend two days with Elian. The result was his first extended interview, which aired Monday on ``Good Morning America.''

The boy was not asked whether he wants to return to Cuba. But he described how the boat that was bringing him and his mother from Cuba sank, and he said he doesn't believe his mother is dead.

Elian drew crayon pictures of the voyage in which his mother and 10 other people drowned. He was found clinging to an inner tube on Thanksgiving and placed with his relatives in Miami.

``My mother is not in heaven, not lost,'' he said in Spanish through his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez. ``She must have been picked up here in Miami somewhere. She must have lost her memory, and just doesn't know I'm here.''

Marisleysis Gonzalez gently reminded him that he knows what really happened to his mother, and he continued gazing downward.

Elian remained home Monday, and family spokesman Armando Gutierrez said he won't return to school out of fears that Cuba might try to force him back to the communist island.

As she left the boy's home at the end of the school day, teacher Obdulia Copa confirmed that she will be teaching the child at home for the rest of the week and possibly until the custody dispute is resolved.

The family wants the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to overturn a federal judge's ruling last week affirming the Immigration and Naturalization Service's decision to return Elian to Cuba. The family asked that the case get a speeded-up handling.

The court responded by asking for the family to file briefs by April 10 and for the government to respond by April 24.

Linda Osberg-Braun, an attorney for Elian's Miami relatives, insisted the family has complied with the government's demands.

``In light of our cooperation, we request that your officials cease their constant threats to revoke Elian's parole,'' the attorneys wrote in a letter to Reno.

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On the Net:

Judge's decision last week: http://www.netside.net/usdcfls/publications/elian.pdf

INS home page: http://www.ins.usdoj.gov

Miami relatives: http://libertyforelian.org

Coverage by Cuban newspaper Granma: http://www.granma.cu/sitioelian/indexing.html

ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/elian000327.html