The bitter stand-off over Elian Gonzalez looked likely to continue beyond the weekend after an appeals court judge forced the United States authorities to delay implementation of a court order returning the six-year-old boy to his father. The emergency injunction, requested by Lazaro Gonzalez, who has been caring for the boy in Miami, unleashed jubilation in the city's Little Havana quarter, where thousands of people had gathered in anticipation of Elian's forcible removal from his relatives' house.
In Washington, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Bonzalez, was said to be angry about the new legal delay and furious with his Miami relatives for refusing to hand over his son after four and a half months. He had flown into the US capital from Cuba last week, with his second wife and new baby, on the understanding that he would be able to reclaim Elian within days. He was also described as "livid" over what he called the "disgusting manipulation" of Elian by the relatives, and what he saw as the complicity of American media.
Allowing his guard to drop for a moment, he showed two fingers up - delicately described in US reports as "an obscene gesture" - to the cameras as he encountered protesters when he went to the Cuban mission yesterday morning. He was meeting Cuban diplomats just an hour after his relatives had played a highly contentious trump 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.
"Papa," he said in Spanish, waving his little clenched fists to the camera, "I do not want to go to Cuba, I want to stay here." Frowning angrily, he rasped almost threateningly: "You can stay or go back to Cuba, but I do not want to go."
The video - denounced in some sections of the US media, which clearly had misgivings about showing it - had been recorded late the previous evening at the Miami Beach house of Jeanne 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 after he had backed out of an apparent agreement to take Elian to meet his father in Washington.
Although Elian had been expected to stay there overnight, as a possible prelude to his handover, his uncle and cousin took him back to the Little Havana house in the early hours of the morning, saying that they felt "safer" there. With their return, tensions in the neighbourhood escalated.
By the time the 2pm deadline set by the US Justice Department for the handover of the child approached, there was a crowd of more than 5,000 people outside the relatives' house - the largest day-time crowd for weeks. Although they threatened only "passive resistance", the mood was at times confrontational, with frenzied shouts of "he will not go back" and "freedom", which rose to an excited climax whenever Elian himself appeared in the garden.
The mayors of Miami city and Miami-Dade County turned up shortly before the deadline expired to appeal for calm, but the extreme tension had already been defused by the attorney general, Janet Reno, who had said just an hour before that Elian would not be removed as soon as the deadline expired. "You will not see federal marshals at 2.01pm," she said at a midday press conference in Miami, in which she also appealed for calm.
There was still time, she said, for the relatives to agree to a meeting with the father in Washington. "If they can work it out," she said, "the government will step aside." If not, the relatives would have to agree "to abide by the law". But, she said, "I am prepared to enforce the law." Ms Reno, who had flown to Miami on Wednesday evening in the hope of rescuing the previous day's failed agreement for the reunion of Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his son, returned to Washington yesterday afternoon without commenting on the injunction that threatened yet another delay in bringing them together.