Uncertainty as dealine approaches for Elian

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The Elian Gonzalez case rushed toward an uncertain future on Thursday, with the boy's Cuban father apparently ready to jump on a plane to retrieve him and talks between the U.S. government and lawyers for the boy's Miami relatives resuming.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service delayed the revocation of Elian's temporary residency status another day, until 9 a.m. (1400 GMT) on Friday.

In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno would not speculate about how the possible arrival of Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, would change the Department of Justice's strategy.

"This case has been heartbreaking for everybody involved," Reno said. "But we believe the law is clear; the father must speak for the boy because the sacred bond between parent and child must be recognised and Elian should be reunited with his father."

Reno said she thought that most family disputes were best worked out between families, rather than by government officials. She also referred to the comments made by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, that local officials would hold the federal government responsible if the removal of Elian caused unrest in the community.

"Some officials yesterday suggested that if we take action, it is a provocation, a provoking of people that would produce risks and contribute to violence. They said they would not be responsible for that, that I would be," Reno said, adding that she didn't believe there would be violence.

"The people that I know in the Cuban community ... believe in the rule of law," she said. Reno was born in Miami and served as state attorney for the area before taking her job with the Clinton administration.

The Immigration and Naturalisation Service and the boy's Miami family remained at an impasse over the government's demand that they agree to surrender Elian if they lose their court fight to keep him.

The two sides met for five hours late Wednesday, and gathered again Thursday to continue talks Thursday.

The 6-year-old boy has been living here with his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez since he was found in November on an inner tube off the coast of Florida. The boy's mother and 10 others died when their boat sank as they tried to reach the United States.

The governments of both nations want the boy returned to his father in Cuba, a plan that has stirred threats of civil disobedience from Miami's large Cuban population. The Miami relatives went to court to keep Elian and their lawsuit is now before a federal appeals court in Atlanta, with arguments scheduled for the week of May 8.

The U.S. immigration agency will tell the boy's great-uncle how and when he is to relinquish custody of Elian unless the two sides reach an agreement, spokeswoman Maria Cardona said. She refused to discuss details.

Lazaro Gonzalez has said he would be willing to release Elian to his father if Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to Florida from Cuba. He said he would not deliver the boy to the U.S. immigration agency.

"The boy lives in my house, and they'll have to go find him there," Lazaro Gonzalez told Spanish-language network Telemundo.

On Wednesday, Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced that the boy's father was ready to travel to the United States "immediately." He said the trip was conditional on guarantees that the U.S. government would turn Elian over to his father or try its best to do so.

It was the first time anyone has said the boy's father would be willing to stay in the United States during the legal process.

"The passports are ready," Castro said. "And of course the airplane is ready."

U.S. State Department officials said Wednesday that they had not received a visa request from the boy's father. Phone calls to Gonzalez's home in Cuba were not answered.

Several thousand people rallied in the Little Havana neighborhood around Elian's house in a prayer vigil late Wednesday.

At one point, Elian was brought outside, riding on the shoulders of a family friend. As he smiled and waved his arms, the crowd cheered and chanted "Elian! Elian!"

"The family will stay with Elian until the last minute," family spokesman Armando Gutierrez told the crowd.

Some demonstrators have talked of forming a human chain and laying down their lives to prevent the little boy from being taken away.

"The federal authorities of INS need to understand that we are free and this is a country of laws and we are not going to accept their stubbornness. We are not going to allow them to take the kid," said Oscar Pupo, 56, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen.