Elian Gonzales was fast asleep on the couch in the Miami home of his great-uncle Lazaro when the decision forcibly to remove him was taken. Nearly 1,000 miles away in Washington, President Bill Clinton picked up the phone at 2.45am and told White House Chief of Staff John Podesta that he would support action to remove the boy if the negotiations for his release failed.
The President's go-ahead was conveyed to Attorney-General, Janet Reno. Having spent a day and half the night negotiating with the boy's Miami relatives and his father, the time for talking was over. The order went out that the dawn raid to seize the boy should proceed: Operation Elian was on.
In Miami agents of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service pulled on their overalls, checked out weapons, boarded three vans and headed for the Gonzales home in Little Cuba. But even as they drove towards their target, negotiations between Ms Reno and the relatives burst into life again.
Inside the little white stucco Gonzales house the boy slept on but the adults were moving about, weighing how far they could compromise. They called Washington and made a counter-offer, unaware that this would be their last play. Ms Reno was aware. She listened, but wouldn't budge. It was now approaching 5am, and the INS vans were a few streets away. They made a final check-call, and were told to move in.
As the vans turned into the street where Elian slept, about four dozen Cuban American protesters kept vigil outside. Keeping them company were the TV crews that have turned this modest home into a global goldfish bowl. The demonstrators spotted the vans first, and some of them understood what was about to happen. "They're coming to pick up the kid," they yelled.
The vans stopped, and more than a dozen agents poured out. Gas was sprayed at the supporters. Shouts went up to "Stay back! Stay back!", and the armed men in helmets and overalls rushed to the house.
The home's chain-link fence was the first to go. Then the front door was pushed in, taking the family inside by complete surprise. "It sounded like soldiers coming into the house," an emotional Donato Dalrymple said. "I jumped up and I heard little Elian screaming from the couch and I grabbed the little boy and ran into the bedroom and closed the door behind us. Elian was screaming: 'Help me, help me. What's going on?' "
In the bedroom, as he heard the shouts from agents and the family, Mr Dalrymple hugged the child to his shoulder and hid in a cupboard. Within seconds the bedroom door was broken down and an agent, wearing a helmet and goggles and with an automatic weapon levelled at whoever was inside, burst in and tore open the cupboard.
The agent thrust out his gloved hand at the boy. Dalrymple shouted: "Please, don't hurt the child, don't hurt the child." As he did so, Elian was taken from the same arms that had plucked the child from the ocean five months ago.
He was handed to a female INS agent, who held him and rushed into a waiting van. A sliding door was rammed shut and the van sped off. Some of the crowd were weeping and screaming. But the object of their devotion was gone, heading for Watson Island, where he was ushered on board a helicopter bound for Homestead Air Force Base. There Elian was examined by a doctor and then put on to a US marshal's plane to Washington DC, where his father was waiting.
According to a US official, on board they gave Elian explanations. But no details are yet available of the exact words that could explain to a six-year-old all that the adult world had done to him in the last five months.
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