Reno flies to Miami in bid to solve Elian crisis

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The United States Attorney General, Janet Reno, flew from Washington to her home city of Miami yesterday to try to bring about the peaceful reunion of Elian Gonzalez and his father, while cooling the fury of the city's Cuban émigrés.

Ms Reno's decision was just the latest and most extraordinary turn on a day when events moved with kaleidoscopic speed in both cities.

Only hours before, the slight figure of Elian Gonzalez, almost swamped by an oversized green parka against the rain, had left the Miami house that has been his home for the past four months for what was probably the last time.

The six-year-old Cuban boy, whose fate has riveted and distressed America, waved a timid goodbye to the sparse crowd gathered outside the house before climbing into a white saloon car for the drive to the house of Jeanne O'Laughlin, a local college principal and Catholic nun.

The party, which included Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, made a detour to stop at the local hospital and pick up Lazaro's daughter, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who was being treated for stress and exhaustion. A spokesman for the family said that they were going "somewhere quieter" to avoid "all the rumours".

The relatives, who have cared for Elian since he was rescued from the shipwreck of a refugee boat off Florida last November, are fighting a judge's ruling that Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba. It was not clear, however, whether Ms O'Laughlin's home was to be a half-way house for transferring the boy to the care of his father, or a refuge to prevent the forcible removal of Elian from his Miami relatives and delay the inevitable handover still further. In a subsequent statement, Ms O'Laughlin strongly suggested that it was the latter, expressing the hope that "the child will not have to move again" and that "as the child comes to be reacquainted with his father, there will be peace and healing in the family".

Ms O'Laughlin, who is afriend of Ms Reno, was chosen as the neutral third party to host the meeting between Elian and his Cuban grandmothers in January. A week later, however, she said that the meeting had convinced her that Elian should remain with his Miami relatives, a change of heart that made her a heroine with the émigré Cubans in Miami and complicated the already complex case still further.

Meanwhile, Elian's father left the Cuban diplomat's house in suburban Washington where he has been staying for a lengthy meeting with his lawyer, but there was no sign that he was preparing to go to Miami. Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a Cuban hotel worker, had come to the United States at the end of last week on the promise, as he understood it, that he would be reunited with his son within days. He was described as being "extremely frustrated" both with his Miami relatives and with the US government, that the reunion was taking so long.

Yesterday's flurry of activity in Washington and Miami followed a night and morning of utter confusion in which stated intentions changed by the hour, and most of the many individuals with an interest in the outcome had a say. Tuesday had seen intensive negotiations in Washington, which brought together lawyers, a Congressman, psychologists and Justice Department officials, as well as the two mayors - city and county - of Miami in an effort to forge a solution short of handing over the child to his father by force.

Late at night, it was announced that Lazaro Gonzalez was prepared to bring Elian to Washington for a meeting at an undisclosed, neutral location.

The Justice Department and immigration service at once delayed plans to issue a court order that would pave the way for a forcible handover, an eventuality they have been desperate to avoid, not only because of the emotive impact of the likely pictures, but to minimise the trauma to a child who has already suffered a shipwreck, the death of his mother and a four-month separation from his father.

Within hours, however, the plan for a meeting in Washington - which, it transpired, would have been held at the Vatican's mission in the city - was already in doubt.

Lazaro Gonzalez - who had been represented in the negotiations by his lawyers and by Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the more influential Cuban émigré leaders - refused to take Elian to Washington without a guarantee that the child would return with him to Miami.

Anyway, he told the crowd outside his house, Elian did not want to meet his father. By yesterday morning, the meeting was incontrovertibly off.

Filling in some of what had happened in the interim, Ms O'Laughlin said that she had been asked to come to the house in the morning by Lazaro Gonzalez, because Elian was "having difficulty getting dressed and was not willing to leave the house".

He had finally left, she said, on condition that they picked up Marisleysis from hospital on the way. "Right now," she said from outside her house, "the little boy is happy and the family is at ease."

The Justice Department again put the court order on hold, awaiting the results of Ms Reno's visit.