Appeal for calm as Elian tussle takes another twist

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US officials pleaded for calm yesterday over the case of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who is at the centre of a tussle between the US and Cuba.

After months of deadlock, the fight over the boy was poised between resolution and failure, tragedy and farce. Washington was waiting for a delegation of Cubans, including the boy's father, which may turn an already complicated situation into a political circus. Miami was waiting to see if the city would explode into violent protests against the boy's return to Cuba.

Elian's mother tried to smuggle him to the US on a boat which sank, killing her and ten other refugees. He was rescued, claimed by both relatives in the US and his father in Cuba, and a fierce fight began between Washington, Miami and Havana.

His father has remained in Cuba so far, saying that he would not come to America until the government promised he would be allowed to take the boy home. But Fidel Castro stunned Cuba and America late on Wednesday night by announcing that a delegation was ready to fly to America.

"This case has been heartbreaking for everyone involved but we believe that the law is clear. The father must speak for the little boy because the sacred bond between parent and child must be recognized and honored and Elian should be reunited with his father," said Janet Reno, US Attorney General. "It is proper for the father to decide what to do with the child."

As well as Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the Cuban delegation includes 30 relatives, schoolmates and doctors, who would stay at the home of a Cuban diplomat in Washington. They would remain until the custody of the boy was settled. Negotiations were under way yesterday between the Cuban government and the US State Department on the terms of their visit.

President Castro said yesterday that passports were ready and a plane was standing by to fly the delegation to Washington. As a mark of its political importance, the group includes Ricardo Alarcon, Cuba's National Assembly President and a former foreign minister. The boy's school desk might also be sent to Washington, said Mr Castro.

A court appeal for political asylum for the boy is under way, and the US government says that if it fails, he must be returned to Cuba. Even his temporary permission to stay will be revoked unless the Miami relatives agree that they would relinquish him if the appeal fails, it says.

That raises the prospect of US officials trying to take the boy from the Miami relatives, but members of the Cuban-American community in Miami have threatened to prevent this, raising the prospect of violent clashes. Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great uncle, was meeting with US officials to try to resolve the impasse yesterday.

Thousands of people flooded the streets of Miami on Wednesday night protesting at the government's attempts to reunite the child with his father. Alex Penelas, the Miami-Dade County Mayor, has warned that there will be chaos if the government tries to take the boy.