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U.S. proposes new timetable in Elian court fight

Relatives of Elian Gonzalez who want to keep the 6-year-old boy from being returned to Cuba are facing mounting pressure from the U.S. government to put their case before an appeals court.

The Justice Department late Friday told the relatives that they have until noon Monday to agree to a speedy appeal or the boy will be swiftly returned to his father, according to family spokesman Armando Gutierrez.

In Washington, a federal official close to the case confirmed that the U.S. Justice Department wants to give the family's lawyers until April 3 to file the expedited appeal, a date the lawyers had proposed. The Miami Herald reported Saturday that all papers in the appeal would have to be filed by April 10.

If the relatives do not agree to the new deadline, the government will begin the process of returning Elian to his father in Cuba next Thursday, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno confirmed the Monday deadline in a statement Friday night, but offered no details. She reiterated her statement that the goal is to "reunite Elian with his father in a fair, prompt and orderly manner."

The Herald also reported that the boy must be turned over to federal officials within three days if the family loses its appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court fails to step in.

The developments cap a week filled with legal maneuvering in the custody war over the little boy.

Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off Florida on Nov. 25 after his mother and 10 other people drowned when their boat capsized during an attempt to reach the United States.

The case quickly became a fight between the U.S. and Cuban governments and U.S. family members who oppose the island nation's Communist ideology and want to raise the boy.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in a January ruling supported by Reno, said the boy must be returned to his father. That led to a lawsuit and a judge's ruling on Tuesday that upheld the INS decision.

That ruling is the subject of the appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and the Justice Department deadlines to speed up the case. The first deadline for the family's appeal was March 31.

The agency is closely watching the family's response to the latest letter, as are members of Miami's large Cuban exile community who have threatened to protest if the government moves to send the boy back to Cuba.

"We will certainly make the administration pay a dear price for such an arbitrary decision," said Ninoska Perez, a spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation.

Gutierrez said family members will meet with their lawyers over the weekend to discuss the case. Beyond that, Gutierrez said: "We will not comment right now."

The U.S. government on Thursday told the family to speed up their appeal or the INS would "immediately move to revoke" Elian's temporary permission to remain in this country.

Lawyers for the boy's Miami relatives responded by proposing the appointment of an independent arbitrator to determine what would be best for Elian: Miami or Cuba. The attorneys suggested former Sen. Bob Dole or Sen. George Mitchell for the position, saying arbitration could begin April 3 and be completed within two weeks.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner rejected the plan.

"This is not an option that we are prepared to entertain," she said. "Our goal here is to reunite Elian with his father and to do that as quickly, as promptly and as orderly as possible."

Anticipating the denial, family attorney Kendall Coffey said the appeal would be filed by April 3.

In Cuba, journalists and other observers criticized the arbitration offer. During a live program broadcast by Cuban state television, panel members said they were disappointed the boy's time in the United States could now be extended for at least three more weeks.