HAVANA (AP) _ The father of Elian Gonzalez is willing to travel to the United States to claim his son and stay with him, while their Miami relatives continue a legal battle to keep him, President Fidel Castro said Wednesday night.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez ``is ready to immediately'' to go Florida to take custody of the 6-year-old boy, Castro said during the surprise announcement made during a live television broadcast. He said the trip was conditional on guarantees that the U.S. government would turn Elian over to his father or at least make a maximum effort to do so.

``The passports are ready,'' Castro said. ``And of course the airplane is ready.''

He said that Gonzalez's American attorney Gregory Craig was seeking U.S. visas for the father and a large entourage, as well as the guarantees the father had sought.

Castro said that all that Gonzalez was waiting for was final word from his attorney that the guarantees had been delivered. He did not offer any specifics to what city the plane would fly to initially, but said that Gonzalez would wait out the court process with his son in Washington.

The turnabout came at a crucial time _ on the eve of the U.S. Justice Department's deadline for Elian's Miami relatives to sign an agreement promising to give up the boy if they lose their legal appeal.

Lazaro Gonzalez, the Miami great-uncle Elian has been staying with, has said he would be willing to release the boy to Gonzalez, if the father personally came from Cuba to pick him up.

Apparently calling the great-uncle's bluff, Castro said not only would the father go, but he would stay for the entire court process.

Gonzalez in the past has said that he would be willing to travel to the United States to claim his boy if he could just pick him up and come back to Cuba.

This is the first time that anyone has said that Gonzalez was willing to stay in the United States during the legal process. It is also the first time that it has been said that Gonzalez is ready to travel immediately.

Gonzalez would go with a large group of people, including his wife, and their 6-month-old son, who is Elian's half-brother. Also in the entourage would be Elian's first grade teacher, a dozen of his classmates and a host of Cuban psychologists and psychiatrists.

Other members of the family would stay at the home of the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Castro said.

He said having Elian's teacher and classmates along would allow Elian to reinsert himself into his family and school environment ``without losing a moment of the child's readaption.''

Since the international dispute over Elian erupted after the boy was rescued at sea more than four months ago, Gonzalez has been reluctant to travel to the United States to claim his child.

He has cited concerns that he would be the subject of legal and political attacks by anti-communist Cuban exiles who oppose Elian's return to the island, and that his life could be endangered.

Castro said that staying at the home of Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, the Cuban Interests Section chief, would provide the protections that Gonzalz sought.

Castro said he consulted with Gonalez before making the announcement. Phone calls placed to Gonzalez's home went unanswered.