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Cuban Exile Heads for Cuban Waters

January 24, 1998

IN THE FLORIDA STRAITS (AP) _ The Coast Guard on Saturday searched for a Cuban exile who said he sailed from Florida in the middle of the night in defiance of U.S. orders not to head for Cuba.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Miami-based exile group Democracy Movement, and three fellow exiles encountered seas running at 4 to 7 feet in the Florida Straits.

``I am very calm. This is a dream for me _ the day that I can land in Cuba, to be there and demonstrate to everyone that we are human beings and long for the day we can return to our homeland,″ Sanchez said by cellular phone.

The voyage was timed to coincide with the five-day visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, which concludes Sunday.

``We plan to be on the island before the pope leaves,″ one of the people on Sanchez’s boat said by phone Saturday, without identifying himself.

Neither he nor a spokesman for the Democracy Movement would give the boat’s location. ``The less we know, the better off we are,″ Carl Giron said from the group’s Miami office.

Another group of Cuban exiles left separately during the night, accompanied by a boat carrying reporters. They planned to travel just to the edge of Cuban territorial water to drop flowers and offer prayers for Cuban political prisoners. About a dozen small planes took off Saturday morning from the Miami area and the Florida Keys to fly over that ceremony at sea.

U.S. officials contended that Sanchez and the others aboard his boat, the 35-foot Human Rights, were violating a 1997 presidential order that requires boat captains leaving South Florida for Cuba to seek Coast Guard permission.

The Coast Guard said Democracy Movement members requested a permit but it wasn’t approved because they lacked a Cuban entry permit.

Sanchez said he started his voyage outside the area covered by the decree, which runs down part of the Gulf of Mexico Coast, around the tip of Florida and up to about the Deerfield Beach area, just north of Fort Lauderdale. He kept his departure point secret.

The Coast Guard alerted its patrols.

``The Coast Guard always has vessels and aircraft on patrol throughout the waters off of Florida and the Florida Straits,″ said Petty Officer Scott Carr in Miami. ``If we happen upon Mr. Sanchez we will take appropriate action.″

The Coast Guard also planned to have a cutter and a helicopter in the area where the seagoing service was planned.

``We have two primary focuses. One is safety at sea and the prevention of an international incident,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Woodring.

In 1996, Cuban gunboats rammed the lead boat in a protest flotilla organized by the group, injuring several people.

Also that year, Cuban fighters shot down two small planes carrying members of the group Brothers to the Rescue over international water. Four people died.

Roberto de Armas, a spokesman for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said the Cuban government expects the U.S. Coast Guard to keep exile boats out of Cuban waters. He said he was not aware of any special efforts by the Cuban government to stop the boats.

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