Armed federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday, firing tear gas into an angry crowd as they left the scene with the weeping 6-year-old boy.
More than 20 agents arrived at the home shortly after 5 a.m. (10:00am BST) and used rams on the chain-link fence and on the front door. A short time later, a woman and man brought Elian out of the home and put him in a white van that drove away.
"Assassins," yelled some of the approximately 100 protesters, some of whom climbed over the barricades in an attempt to stop the agents. The agents, wearing U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service shirts, were armed with automatic weapons.
"The world is watching!" yelled Delfin Gonzalez, the brother of the little boy's caretaker and great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez.
"They were animals," said Jess Garcia, a bystander. "They gassed women and children to take a defenseless child out of here. We were assaulted with no provocation"
Within an hour of the raid, the crowd in Little Havana quickly swelled to about 300.
The raid came amid reports of progress early today to immediately transfer custody of the boy from his Miami relatives to his Cuban father. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was at her office early this morning engaged in an extraordinary, long-distance negotiation that began Friday afternoon.
The settlement was first proposed by civic leaders in Miami serving as intermediaries. Proposals and counterproposals flew through the night by telephone and facsimile machine between the Miami house, the U.S. Justice Department and the Washington office of the father's lawyer.
All of that ended early Saturday.
Carlos Gonzalez said he and several others tried to form a human chain in front of the door but were forced back at gunpoint.
The U.S. government and the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, insisted that any deal contain an immediate transfer of custody of Elian to him, but the Miami relatives had defied Reno's order switching custody.
The relatives have cared for him since November, when he was found clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic after a boat carrying his mother and other Cubans capsized, killing her and 10 others. They and the Cuban exiles in the street do not want the boy returned to a Cuba ruled by Fidel Castro, whom they fled.
The deal under discussion called for Juan Miguel Gonzalez and Elian, Lazaro and his daughter, Marisleysis, to move to one of two foundation-owned conference centers near Washington - either Wye Plantation, a center on Maryland's Eastern shore that has been used for Mideast peace conferences, or Airlie House near Warrenton, Virginia, according to a government official, who asked to not be identified.
The plan called for formal custody to transfer immediately from the Miami relatives to the boy's Cuban father, but it was not clear that the relatives had accepted that, the official said.
Another sticking point was the length of the joint occupation of the compound. The intermediaries proposed that all family members stay until a court appeal is completed, in late May at the earliest. But Juan Miguel Gonzalez faxed a counterproposal back in late evening Friday that called for a much shorter joint stay, the official said.
Reno, Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner and other officials waited in Reno's Justice Department office past midnight for the relatives' reply to the counterproposal.
The Miami relatives lost a U.S. District Court battle to get a political asylum hearing for Elian. An appeals court has ordered Elian to stay in this country until it hears that case, but did not bar Reno from switching custody.
Reno met for 15 minutes Friday at the Justice Department with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. During the emotional session, the father said he had a very good 25-minute telephone conversation with his son on Thursday, the government official said. He also asked Reno to give him a date certain when he would get his son back.
But afterward, Reno said she told him "that I could not commit to a particular course of action or timetable."