Cuban rescue could spark asylum crisis

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Relations between Cuba and the United States risked a fresh strain last night as US authorities struggled to determine the fate of eight survivors of a stolen crop-dusting plane that crashed into the sea on Tuesday. It had ran out fuel during an apparent bid to make it to American soil.

Relations between Cuba and the United States risked a fresh strain last night as US authorities struggled to determine the fate of eight survivors of a stolen crop-dusting plane that crashed into the sea on Tuesday. It had ran out fuel during an apparent bid to make it to American soil.

A Panamanian-registered freighter, the Chios Dream, scooped nine people and one corpse from the water on Tuesday. One of the passengers was airlifted by the US Coast Guard to the American mainland for treatment in hospital.

The remaining eight Cubans - two men, three women and three children - remained on the Chios Dream yesterday. They were to be transferred to a US Coast Guard cutter last night.

American authorities said they had started to question the Cubans about their doomed dash for the US. Once the group is transferred to the cutter, they will be interviewed by immigration officials who will determine whether they should be returned to Cuba.

There was confusion in Cuba as to what exactly happened on the plane. The pilot, identified as Lenin Hernandez, radioed after take-off to say he was being hijacked to Florida. But a colleague of the pilot yesterday suggested the radio message was a ruse.

"The hijack thing was a lie," said Juan Jose Cabrera. Cabrera said his colleague tricked him into leaving the plane and then took off without him from the airstrip where they had been working. Seemingly, he then touched down at another airstrip to pick up his passengers for the trip north.

Under agreements between Washington and Havana, asylum is normally only granted to Cuban refugees who actually make it to dry land in the US. Cuba will therefore be expecting America to hand back the eight survivors still at sea.

A decision to repatriate them would anger the large Cuban community in Miami, however. Because a crime was apparently committed in taking the plane for the trip, the pilot, at least, could face severe punishment if they are sent home.

Washington will not be relishing wrangling with Cuba again over refugees. It has only been a few weeks since the saga involving six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, which inflamed passions in Miami, was finally resolved and the boy was sent home to be with his father.

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