U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives to bring the 6-year-old boy to an airport this afternoon so he could be taken to a reunion with his father in Washington.
Reno delivered the ultimatum after taking the extraordinary step of coming to Miami to meet for 2 1/2 hours with the Cuban boy's relatives.
She failed to persuade them to end the wrenching 4 1/2-month custody struggle, and Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, defiantly said he would not relinquish custody of the boy.
Reno told the family to bring Elian to the airport Thursday at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT). She said a plane would take the boy, and whatever relatives wanted to come, to Washington for a retreat at a neutral site with the boy's Cuban father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. No Cuban diplomats would be present.
She said if the family did not show, "We will enforce the order," but she did not elaborate. Government sources have said the U.S. Justice Department was prepared to send U.S. marshals and immigration agents into the great-uncle's house to remove the boy.
Family lawyer, Manny Diaz, said he would seek a federal court injunction to block the government from instituting the order.
She said Reno and U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service Commissioner Doris Meissner had heard ample evidence during the meeting that Elian does not want to go back to Cuba but refused to take that into account.
Reno said she took everything she heard into consideration.
"She was very respectful and they were very honest," O'Laughlin said. "The pain of this family and their understanding of the pain of Juan Miguel was very evident. They have expressed over and over again their desire to be a loving family, whole again."
Reno said the Miami relatives indicated that Marisleysis, who considers herself a mother figure to Elian and has been hospitalised several times for stress and exhaustion, could not travel by plane. They presented alternatives such as inviting Juan Miguel to a reunion at O'Laughlin's house.
But "Everyone involved has felt that it would be dangerous for Juan Miguel to come to South Florida at this time," Reno said.
Elian and his relatives had left their politically charged Little Havana neighborhood to spend the day at O'Laughlin's gated home. They headed back home early Thursday, and 150 demonstrators gathered outside.
Elian, clinging to an inner tube, was rescued by two fishermen on Nov. 25, after his mother and 10 other Cubans drowned when their boat sank.
His Miami relatives have been caring for him ever since and have been fighting in court for him to have an asylum hearing. But the Clinton administration has ordered Elian back to his father in Cuba, saying only he can speak for the boy on immigration matters.
A U.S. judge affirmed that decision, but the family has appealed.
Elian's father, who met with Reno after coming to America last week, remained in Bethesda, Maryland. He indicated Wednesday - the day after a meeting in Washington with the Miami relatives was scheduled and abruptly canceled - that he was through negotiating.
Later, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his wife and their infant son were guests of honour at a reception at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington.
In Havana, Ricardo Alarcon, the senior Cuban official who has advised the father, criticised the Miami relatives for delaying the transfer, saying they were showing "a total lack of respect for American society," and "making fun of the U.S. government."
If Elian's relatives were hoping for a quieter setting in Miami Beach, they only partially succeeded.
While Reno met with the family, dozens of police and federal agents kept watch over about 200 demonstrators. Several waved a Cuban flag bigger than a king-sized bedsheet.
Even before Elian arrived at the house, a crowd chanted "Elian! Elian!" in anticipation. The demonstrators were forced to keep a greater distance than on Lazaro Gonzalez's narrow street. Police kept them across a four-lane road, behind a median and a barricade.