Clinton says Elian and his father should be reunited promptly

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President Bill Clinton said on Thursday that Elian Gonzalez should be promptly reunited with his father, saying "there's now no conceivable argument" to keep them apart after a federal court ruled the boy cannot leave the United States.

"I think he should be reunited in as prompt and orderly way as possible."

Mr Clinton spoke a day after a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said that Elian must remain in the United States until the court decides whether he should get an asylum hearing. A hearing was set for May 11.

"There's now no conceivable argument for his not being able to be reunited with his son," Mr Clinton said. "That is what the lawful process has said. The immigration law is clear and the determination of the INS and a federal court are clear."

The president spoke in response to questions in the White House Rose Garden as he welcomed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the opening of discussions about the Middle East peace process.

He discussed the Elian case with Attorney General Janet Reno for 45 minutes on a flight from Oklahoma City, where they attended the dedication of a memorial to the 168 people killed five years ago in the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Mr Clinton said" "I think he should be reunited with his son. That is the law. And the main argument of the family in Miami for not doing so has now been removed. Their main argument was if we let him go back to his father before the court rules, he might go back to Cuba. The court has now said he shouldn't go back to Cuba. The Justice Department agrees with that."

White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said that Mr Clinton was leaving the decisions in Ms Reno's hands.

"The attorney general is leading the effort," Mr Lockhart said. "The president has been briefed and has had input. Is she making the decisions here? Yes."

Mr Lockhart declined to discuss Mr Clinton's conversation with Ms Reno about the case but said the president "believes the attorney general has moved forward in a deliberate way which he believes is appropriate, allowing all sides to have their say, while at the same time clearing the way for the boy to be reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has come from Cuba to the United States to reclaim his son.

The boy was rescued off the Florida coast in November. He and two others survived at sea, but his mother and 10 others drowned when their boat sank en route from Cuba to the United States.

By saying the boy should not leave, the court has removed a concern of the Miami relatives, Mr Lockhart said. "They now should move forward and, in conjunction with the Justice Department, allow the boy to be reunited with his father."