US officials vow to hand Elian over to his father

The battle over the future of Elian Gonzalez retreated from the streets and back into the courts yesterday, as government lawyers sought to reverse a ruling that could keep the six-year-old boy in the United States for another month.

In the Little Havana quarter of Miami, the salsa-dancing and honking cars that had greeted news of the ruling on Thursday had given way to a cautious vigil by no more than 20 or 30 people, many of them praying, outside what is now known as "Elian's house".

In the courts, two separate claims were in progress. The US government presented documents in the early morning in the hope of getting the previous day's emergency injunction withdrawn. On Thursday, as government action to remove Elian from his relatives' home by force seemed inevitable, a single judge had granted an emergency stay, instructing that Elian must remain in the US until the outcome of his relatives' appeal for an asylum hearing. A lower court ruled against them last month, but the case is now awaiting the decision of an appeals judge.

The emergency injunction did not expressly prohibit officials from removing Elian from the care of his relatives and handing him over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. But it did prevent Mr Gonzalez from taking Elian out of the country before the judge has ruled.

What is more, the US Attorney General, Janet Reno, reportedly gave the Miami relatives an unofficial undertaking that the child would not be forcibly removed over the weekend. As she made clear before the court-ordered deadline for his handover expired on Thursday, she was prepared to allow more time for the two sides of the family to agree a solution between themselves.

This view, however, was contradicted by a Washington Post report, citing an unidentified senior official in Washington as saying that Elian was expected to be in his father's custody "in the next day or so" and strongly implied that the stand-off would not be allowed to persist through the weekend.

The head of the US immigration service, Doris Meissner, said that legal action would be taken against the relatives for disregarding Thursday's deadline. She said: 'There will be action taken. We are now in a situation where we need to enforce an order and a family is not in compliance with the law."

Spencer Eig, one of the relatives' large team of lawyers, immediately rejected this characterisation of his client, Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. Mr Eig said: "He's not a law-breaker. He's a patriot."

As Elian's increasingly impatient father waited in Washington for the long-promised reunion, controversy continued to rage over the videotape of Elian saying that he did not want to return to Cuba. While Elian's words, "Papa, I don't want to go to Cuba", have become a rallying point among the Cuban émigré campaigners in Miami, their impact elsewhere has been quite different.

A succession of child experts, psychologists and others, denounced the recording as evidence that the child was being manipulated. The consensus among them is that what Elian most needs is a speedy reunion with his father and evidence that "adults in his world can work together in his best interests".

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