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Exiles Head to Florida Straits Under Watchful Eyes of Cuba, U.S.

July 13, 1996

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ A flotilla of Cuban exiles headed to the edge of Cuban waters Saturday to honor 41 exiles who died two years ago when their fleeing tug was sunk by Communist gunboats.

Under blue skies with calm seas, almost 20 boats, some flying Cuban and American flags, left Key West at 6:30 a.m. for the 78-mile journey.

The exiles planned to scatter flowers and the cremated remains of a teen-ager who survived the tugboat sinking, but died of cancer soon after reaching the United States.

Organizers reassured anxious U.S. officials the flotilla would not enter Cuban waters.

``We will go up to that line, and we will not pass it,″ flotilla organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez said.

The flotilla was under close watch by the U.S. and Cuban military. There were no reports of problems by mid-afternoon.

``It’s been very quiet,″ said Capt. Craig Quigley of the U.S. Atlantic Command. Quigley said 18 boats left Key West, and that one turned back after experiencing problems. Six planes flown by exiles accompanied the flotilla.

An F-15 fighter squadron from Homestead Air Reserve Base was on alert in case Cuba attacked the flotilla, and an Airborne Warning and Control System _ or AWACS _ jet flew over the Florida Straights to monitor the situation.

The White House issued a statement saying that the flotilla ``can be an eloquent expression of the American and Cuban people’s yearning for democracy and human rights in Cuba.″

It was a wise decision not to enter Cuban waters, flotilla participant Bovo Caras said.

``Once the president of the United States committed himself to a pacifist movement, we have to comply with him,″ Caras said. ``This is a moral victory. In our 37 years in exile never has a U.S. president committed himself to us like Clinton ... not even Reagan.″

The Cuban military patrolled the nation’s waters and skies, accompanied by roughly 50 journalists, the island’s government news agency reported Saturday.

A spokesman for the Cuban foreign ministry, Miguel Alfonso, was quoted as saying it was not Cuba’s intention to provoke an incident.

This was at least the fifth announced exile flotilla within a year.

The first exile flotilla last July 13 ended in confrontation with Cuban authorities. The flotilla’s lead vessel was rammed by Cuban gunboats and three protesters were injured.

A second flotilla on Sept. 2 ended when one of the boats sank under the weight of its 47 passengers. An elderly man died of a heart attack before he could be lifted from the surf.

On July 13, 1994, Cuban authorities sank a tugboat carrying about 70 people attempting to flee the island. Forty-one people, including many children, were killed.

The exile pilot group Brothers to the Rescue said it also would take part in Saturday’s outing. Cuban MiGs shot down two of the organization’s planes on Feb. 24, killing four members and further fueling anger about the tugboat sinking.

As the flotilla departed, Rafael Castrellon was near tears as he held a red, white and blue Cuban flag. The older man, who wouldn’t give his age, was not allowed to go on the strenuous boat trip.

``It hurts a lot,″ Castrellon said. ``I would like to go to at least get close to my country.″

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