Elian back with his father

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The Independent US

Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy whose fate has galvanised America for five months, was smiling in the arms of his father last night after a day of intense drama that began with an armed raid.

"He looked very happy and his father was crying," said an official of the US Justice Department which orchestrated the armed raid that snatched the boy from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn, and the two flights that reunited him with the father who last saw him in Cuba in November.

Last night, the US Attorney-General Janet Reno said that the boy will remain in the US until the court appeals process is completed. This will resume on 11 May, and could take months. For its duration, Elian and his father will live in a government hideout, away from the cameras, the activists and the rubber-neckers that have made Elian's life for the last few months anyone's property but his own.

The operation began shortly after 5am, when a convoy of cars sped through police barriers and screeched to a halt outside the relatives' house. Armed officers from the immigration service, the border patrol and federal marshals, leapt into the street, forcing back the few overnight protesters with pepper spray, as eight officers ran to the house.

After knocking three times, and shouting for Elian, they battered down the front door. Inside they found Elian in the arms of Danuto Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who had rescued him on Thanksgiving Day; a woman immigration officer, also armed, grabbed him and ran out of the house to one of the waiting cars.

Film of the raid showed Elian wrapped in a blanket, looking pale and bewildered, but not screaming or resisting. The head of the US immigration service, Doris Meissner, said afterwards that the officer who took him spoke Spanish, and had been instructed to reassure him by saying that she knew it was "scary", but that he would soon see his "Papa".

Elian arrived in Florida as one of only three survivors when the boat in which his mother was trying to escape Cuba capsized. A home video released to the media two weeks ago suggested his Miami relatives had coached him to say that he would not go to Cuba, frightening him with the idea it meant a return trip by boat.

Protesters tried to stone the cars as they raced away, but there were too few of them to form the human chain around the house they had threatened, and there was no time to bring out more people.

Elian was taken to a nearby island, where a helicopter was waiting, and from there to Homestead Air Force Base before the flight to Washington. The small plane landed less than three hours later at Andrews Air Force Base - where the presidential planes fly from - and a procession of people, including a man carrying a child, presumed to be Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father, and Elian, were seen entering a building on the base.

Ms Reno had authorised the use of force to remove Elian from his relatives after a day and night of negotiations had failed to convince them to hand Elian over to his father voluntarily. Their final offer was to move to a neutral venue somewhere in Miami, where he could spend time with both families. They gave no specific timing or undertaking, however, to transfer the child.

Defending the operation, Ms Reno said she had had no other option. Just an hour later, President Clinton expressed "full support" for her action. "Every conceivable alternative was tried for a very long time," he said. "I am very pleased with the way she handled it."

In Miami meanwhile, police in riot gear used tear gas to disperse furious crowds who had gathered through the morning in increasing numbers in the streets around Little Havana. That quarter of the city, normally a bustling district of modest houses, small shops and Cuban cafes was paralysed for several hours as police struggled to restore order.