Government says people proposed to accompany Elian's dad not negotiable

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The sizable entourage that Cuba is sending with Elian Gonzalez's father to the United States is not negotiable, the government said Thursday, responding to the surprise expressed by some U.S. officials.

About 30 Cubans will travel with the elder Gonzalez when he travels to reclaim his 6-year-old son, the government has said. They include a dozen of Elian's first-grade classmates from his school as well as specialists and others.

Everyone on the list is "indispensable for the reinsertion of the child in his family and social environment," the government said in a statement carried by state media Thursday evening.

"We will not make concessions of any kind when it comes to the safety and health of the boy, who today is in criminal hands and practically without any kind of protection."

U.S. State Department officials were taken aback by the large number proposed in the group.

U.S. officials are examining visa regulations to determine how many of the would-be companions would be eligible to join Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, on the proposed trip. There are strict eligibility limits for Cuban visas.

Officials declined to speculate on whether the entourage being proposed by Castro would be granted visas.

In Cardenas, a two-hour's drive east of Havana, Elian's classmates were excited Thursday about the prospect of a trip to visit their friend in the United States. Parents of the classmates chosen from the trip said they had given their permission for their children to travel.

"When I see Elian I will give him a big hug!" 6-year-old Hanser Muniz Pedroso, Elian's best friend and deskmate, told Associated Press Television News.

"We have put aside a suitcase to prepare all the clothes and a toothbrush," said Dianela Cartaya Macias, 6, during a visit to Elian's classroom at Marcelo Salado Elementary School.

Pedroso indicated he had worried about Elian ever since the boy was rescued off the coast of Florida in late November. Since then, Elian has become a national issue in Cuba.

While his father and four grandparents here are demanding his repatriation, his relatives in Miami, who have temporary custody of him, are fighting to keep him in the United States.

Under Castro's proposal, Elian's father would travel to the United States to claim his son - if the American government guarantees that he will be given custody of his child.

Then, father, son and other members of the family, the dozen schoolchildren and specialists including psychologists and psychiatrists would stay in Washington at the homes of Cuban diplomats during the Miami relatives appeal of a U.S. district judge's rejection of their request of a political asylum hearing for the boy.

"I'm not scared at all to get on a plane," said schoolmate Julio Cesar Cazanas, 6. "I'm not scared of that country or those people there."