Reno defends her handling of the Elian case

The US attorney general, Janet Reno, was forced yesterday to defend her handling of the Elian Gonzalez case, responding to criticism that she had hesitated too long about removing the child from his Miami relatives, was too personally involved and had 'lost her way'. With the appeals court still considering a key ruling, Ms Reno said that public pressure 'should not be the issue; what's right should be the issue' and, she insisted, 'I know where I'm going.'.

Ms Reno made her remarks at her regular weekly meeting with reporters, which was brought forward a day because of the Easter holidays and, unusually, televised. Challenged to explain why she had not yet acted to transfer the six year old boy to his father, even though legal custody was transferred last week, Ms Reno said that her priority was still to have Elian returned 'in the safest and least disruptive manner possible'.

The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has now been in the United States for two weeks, staying at the residence of the senior Cuban diplomat outside Washington. He has seen Elian on television and spoken to him three times on the phone, but has not been able to meet him. The Miami relatives say that he should meet them first, without the child, before they will consider handing him over.

Ms Reno, who personally flew to Miami last week in the - vain - hope of negotiating an agreement, said: 'If the criticism of me is that I'm trying to avoid violence, if the criticism of me is that I'm trying to avoid that little boy being hurt.... I plead guilty.' And she indicated that she was still prepared to wait for the appeal court to rule before ordering the child's enforced transfer. Clearly concerned, however, she added: 'NO child should be in that kind of Never-Never land for that long.'

Ms Reno, a Miami native whose first major decision as attorney general was to authorise the disastrous use of force against the Branch Davidian cult headquarters at Waco in Texas, denied that this decision had led her to be overcautious in this case. The two cases, she said, were quite different. At Waco, the safety of police officers was directly threatened by 'people who could kill'. Yesterday was the seventh annniversary of the Waco assault.

Meanwhile tempers were fraying outside the relatives' house in Miami's Little Havana quarter where Elian is living. On Tuesday night, a man with a placard calling for Elian's return, and another shouting that he should go back to Cuba, were roughed up by the crowd of Cuban emigres that has assembled each day, and escorted away by police. This was the first time that the crowd, which wants Elian to stay in the United States and fluctuates between several dozen and several thousand people, had faced any opposition.

Opinion polls show 60 per cent of Americans in favour of sending Elian back to Cuba, but more than 80 per cent of Florida's Cuban emigres believe that he should remain with his relatives in Miami.

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