The bitter stand-off over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez seemed to be heading for the most acrimonious of conclusions yesterday, as relatives who have been caring for the Cuban boy in Miami vowed not to surrender him.
But as the US authorities prepared to use force to return the child to his father, the Attorney General, Janet Reno,said there was still time for the relatives to agree to a reunion in Washington. She said: "If they can work it out the government will step aside." If not, the relatives would have to agree "to abide by the law". And while insisting that she was "prepared to enforce the law", she pledged: "You will not see marshals at 2.01pm today."
In time for peak morning viewing time, the relatives had played perhaps their ultimate card, releasing a video recording of Elian, sitting on a bed wearing an orange T-shirt, insisting that he did not want to return to Cuba. Speaking in Spanish and waving his clenched fists at the camera, Elian said: "Papa, I do not want to go to Cuba, I want to stay here. You can go back to Cuba, but I do not want to go."
Tensions in Little Havana, the Cuban Ã©migrÃ© neighbourhood of Miami, escalated rapidly as the 2pm deadline set by the US Justice Department for Elian's handover approached. A 15-minute drive away, Opa-Locka airport, stipulated by the US Justice Department as the venue for the handover, was ringed by several hundred police for fear of disturbances. But the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle was the focus of the protests.
As many as a thousand people, the largest day-time crowd for weeks, gathered in the humid heat threatening "passive resistance" to thwart Elian's removal by force. Waving Cuban and US flags, they shouted and chanted the boy's name, cheering family members and friends who came and went through the morning.
The video had been recorded late the previous evening at the Miami Beach house ofJeanne O'Laughlin, the college principal and Catholic nun who had been nominated as an intermediary. Lazaro Gonzalez, had gone to the house with Elian on Wednesday morning, apparently to seek refuge, after he had backed out of an agreement to take Elian to meet his father in Washington.
Elian had been expected to stay there at least overnight but in the early hours of yesterday morning Mr Gonzalez, Elian and Mr Gonzalez's daughter,Marisleysis, emerged from the house and drove back to Little Havana. They felt safer there, Mr Gonzalez said.
The change of plan followed the fruitless intervention of MsReno, who flew to Miami on Wednesday evening in the hope of rescuing the previous day's failed attempt to secure a father and son reunion. A native of Miami, with a keen appreciation of the city's delicate ethnic politics, Ms Reno managed only to solidify the impasse during the two hours she spent at Ms O'Laughlin's house.
She left for consultations with law and order authorities in central Miami at 10pm and said afterwards that the Miami relatives now had a straight choice, enshrined in a court order. They could fly, with her, to Washington for a family reunion with Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, or hand over the child at Opa-Locka airport at 2pm yesterday.
She softened that deadline a little yesterday, saying that the court order would be implemented "in an orderly, reasonable and measured way" - but she would enforce the law.
Yesterday evening, Elian's father was still waiting in Washington to be reunited with thechild he had last seen at his home in Cuba in November, the day before his ex-wife took their son with her on a doomed voyage to Florida. Elian was one of only three survivors of a storm that wrecked the boat.