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All eyes on Elian's father as custody impasse remains

Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives say they are no longer willing to hand the boy over to his father if he comes to Florida to await the outcome of their court appeal. But they said they would not resist if the government tried to take Elian from their house.

The relatives said Friday they would let Juan Miguel Gonzalez visit Elian at their Little Havana home, but they will not voluntarily hand over the 6-year-old while they fight in court for an asylum hearing for him.

Elian "expresses fear about being with his father. He's afraid that he will be punished," said Manny Diaz, an attorney for the Miami family. The family also feels uprooting Elian from their home would be disruptive to his well-being, Diaz said.

Kendall Coffey, another lawyer for the Miami relatives, said officials would have to come to the Little Havana, Miami-area house to get Elian.

"If, for example, the INS authorities decided to come to remove the child, they're not going to block the door, they're not going to lock the door," Coffey said. "They are not going to do anything whatsoever to obstruct a law enforcement operation."

A Justice Department official said Friday that Juan Miguel Gonzalez will probably be given custody of Elian if he comes to the United States from Cuba, though the official also said it is uncertain whether that would happen right away.

"If Elian's father comes to this country, it's likely we will transfer custody of Elian to him. This is consistent with our goal of reuniting them, which was upheld by the district court," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Miami relatives "have brought nothing to our attention that would make us question Juan Miguel's fitness as a parent," the official said.

For months, the Miami relatives have said Elian's father would have to come to Miami to get his son. The father's unwillingness to come to do so prompted a visit instead by the boy's two grandmothers in January.

Now the father has requested a visa to come to the United States to take the boy back to Cuba. Gregory Craig, a Washington lawyer representing the father, said his client is ready to take custody of his son at a moment's notice.

Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Miami relatives, said the strategy is "harming" talks with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which have ended for the week with no agreement. He did not elaborate.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants a signed promise from the Miami relatives that they will surrender Elian if they lose their court battle to keep him in the United States. The immigration agency threatened to revoke the boy's residency status but twice this week pushed back the deadline, now scheduled for Tuesday morning.

On Friday afternoon, Elian played with a white rabbit in the back yard of his home after spending the morning with a teacher who is teaching him at home. His relatives have said they were keeping Elian home out of fear he could be taken away while in school.

As he played, about two dozen demonstrators mingled, some holding signs, as the Cuban national anthem played on a sound system. It was a calm day compared with Thursday, when dozens of anti-Castro activists linked arms outside the boy's home, practicing resistance techniques.

Elian was rescued in November after the boat carrying him and his mother sank during a voyage to reach the United States. His mother, who was divorced from his father, died along with 10 others.

Since then, the boy has been the subject of an international custody fight. The governments of both nations want to return him to his father in Cuba, but his Miami relatives say he will have a better life here.

The boy's father asked for a visa Thursday to come from Cuba to the United States for as long as it takes to complete the court case. A federal appeals court in Atlanta has scheduled arguments for May 11.

Craig said Elian's father will travel to the United States as soon as he is assured by the immigration agency that he will be given custody of his son. The lawyer said he will also seek permission for the boy's classmates, teacher and doctors to travel to the United States to "help smooth the transition."

U.S. officials were examining visa regulations to determine how many of the 31 would-be companions would be eligible to join Elian's father. There are strict eligibility limits for Cuban visas.

In another development, sponsors of a bill to grant Elian, his father and five other family members in Cuba permanent U.S. residency said Friday they hope Vice President Al Gore's surprise support helps the cause. Before Gore's announcement, the measure was given almost no chance.

While Republicans welcomed Gore's announcement, the top Senate Democrat, Tom Daschle, expressed disappointment and surprise, saying, "This shouldn't be a political issue."

Gore's presidential rival, Republican George W. Bush, also supports the legislation.

In a letter published in the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma, Elian's father, stepmother and grandparents said they do not want U.S. residency.

"We frankly are surprised that someone could undertake this initiative without our consent and without even consulting our opinion," they said.