Cubans knew targets were Cessnas

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The Independent Online


Cuban-Americans plan to fly and sail on Saturday to the area where Cuban MiG fighters shot down two Miami-based light aircraft last weekend, apparently killing all four crew. The exiles say they will toss flowers into the Straits of Florida, outside Cuba's territorial waters, and hold a memorial service while two planes of the Brothers to the Rescue group fly overhead.

US officials and Cuban exile moderates, who believe the downed planes were provoking Fidel Castro's government by approaching Cuba, fear the plan could lead to further incidents. After it was announced, Cuban state TV broadcast a statement by Fidel Castro's brother Raul, head of the armed forces, saying Cuba would dedicate "maximum attention to defence".

In the same broadcast, a Cuban soldier said: "We reaffirm our willingness to keep on defending our skies, our land and our coasts."

Jose Basulto, leader of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based group of volunteer pilots who overfly the Straits in the hope of saving Cuban boat people, said he would fly one of the planes on Saturday. Mr Basulto was flying a third Cessna last Saturday but managed to escape as two MiG fighters destroyed the two other planes with missiles.

Mr Basulto speculated yesterday that an apparent Cuban double agent who fled from Miami to Havana just before the shooting incident may have been part of an elaborate plot by Mr Castro that went wrong. "Had they shot me down, with no witnesses, they may have wheeled out Juan Pablo Roque [the apparent agent], billed him as a survivor and had him say that we were on some other kind of mission," Mr Basulto said.

Meanwhile, tapes of the communications between the two Cuban pilots and their ground controller, intercepted by US intelligence, showed they knew they were shooting down Cessnas. The pilots were heard screaming with excitement as they fired, after several minutes of confusion as ground control guided them to their targets. The confusion worried US officials, who noted that dozens of American commercial jetliners overfly Cuba daily.

The tapes also suggested the pilots came close to firing missiles at a Florida-based cruise liner, apparently the Royal Caribbean line's Majesty of the Seas with more than 3,000 people on board, by mistake.

Following are excerpts from the tapes.

Ground control: You have a target 10 degrees to your left.

MiG-23: Negative, it is a large vessel that I have here.

Ground control: You have the target at 30, I have it in front of you.

MiG-23: Right, what I have is a vessel.

MiG-29: OK, the target is in sight ... It is a Cessna 337 ... First launch. We took out his balls (screaming).