Cuban gunboat rams anti-Castro protesters

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A Cuban gunboat rammed at least one craft in a flotilla of small boats carrying exiled Cubans from Florida yesterday after the flotilla tried to enter Cuban territorial waters to protest against the Castro regime.

Video film shot aboard the cabin cruiser Democracia showed the gunboat ramming the boat's starboard side, knocking many of the 30 or so exiles on board off their feet. Three people were injured, including a Miami city official, Pedro Reboredo. Other film showed two Cuban gunboats sandwiching the Democracia and swinging her around to force her away from Cuba.

"It was like a war down there," said Fred Flacker, a pilot with the "Brothers to the Rescue" exile group which regularly overflies the Florida Straits to look for Cuban refugees on rafts. "There were gunboats, Cuban helicopters, MiG fighters. As the flotilla got to about six miles from Havana, gunboats formed a line, made a pincer movement, then one rammed the Democracia."

There were also reports of a second boat rammed. Other pilots said they thought the ramming took place on the edge of Cuba's 12-mile limit. Cuba had warned the flotilla not to enter its territorial waters. But the exiles had said they were determined to draw attention to the sinking, a year ago yesterday, of a tugboat carrying 72 people trying to flee Cuba. Forty- one people, including 20 children, drowned that day. Survivors described how Cuban gunboats fired water cannon at the tugboat.

Yesterday's flotilla of 20 cabin cruisers, speedboats and fishing vessels flying US and Cuban flags had intended to float wreaths around the spot where the tugboat went down some six miles off Havana. Half a dozen planes of the "Brothers to the Rescue" group had planned to drop bouquets in the same area.

After the ramming, most of the boats appeared to have turned back towards Key West, where they had sailed at dawn on the 90-mile trip.

"It all seemed peaceful as the flotilla entered Cuban waters. A Cuban helicopter overflew the boats and a MiG fighter joined our formation of exiles' small planes in a peaceful manner," said a Miami-based photographer, Chris Pontias, who was on board one of the planes. "Then one of the boats, the Democracia, was rammed by one of the Cuban gunboats. It came as a total shock. There was no gunfire. The injured were transferred to another boat and returned to Key West."

There was no immediate word from the Cuban authorities on the reported incident. Earlier, however, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "The Cuban government reserves the right to take whatever measures it deems appropriate to prevent any violation of its sovereign territory. We do not assume responsibility for the consequences of any act of vandalism that might result from this anti-Cuban adventurism."