Downed pilots 'on mission to murder Castro'

PHIL DAVISON

Miami

An apparent Cuban double agent claimed yesterday that two light aircraft shot down by Cuban MiGs at the weekend were linked to plans to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Earlier, the UN Security Council "deplored" Havana's action and the US announced further sanctions against its Communist neighbour.

Cuban exiles in Miami were stunned when the apparent agent, Juan Pablo Roque, a 40-year-old former Cuban air force major who defected to the US in 1992 and lived among them for four years as an anti-Castro militant, appeared on Cuban state TV early yesterday. But they and US officials scoffed at his claims of an armed attempt to overthrow the Cuban leader.

Most shocking to Cuban-Americans was the implication that Saturday's missile attack on two Cessna aircraft by Cuban fighters in the Straits of Florida, apparently killing all four crewmen, may have been premeditated. Cuban leaders said Mr Roque, after infiltrating the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue group, which flew the planes, had returned to Havana on Friday to denounce their work. Hours later the planes were shot down.

That smacked of a plan to smear the group, which overflies the Straits looking for fleeing Cuban boat people, exiles said. US Defence Department and CIA officials said they were studying intelligence reports to ascertain whether the shooting was a plan ordered by Mr Castro.

Premeditation may also explain why a third plane, piloted by the founder of Brothers to the Rescue, Jose Basulto, whom Mr Roque had befriended, was not fired upon although it was the closest to the Cuban coast, exiles added.

Mr Basulto's light blue plane is clearly marked with his callsign 2506, named after the 2506 Brigade, in which he and other exiles attempted to overthrow Castro in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. He used the callsign on Saturday to Havana control tower, adding "a cordial greeting from Brothers to the Rescue and their president Jose Basulto who is speaking to you". "OK, received, sir," the tower replied.

Mr Roque swam to the US military base at Guantanamo, eastern Cuba, in February 1992 and later gained asylum in the US. He joined Brothers to the Rescue, flew missions with them and married a fellow exile. She said he had left on Friday without saying where he was going.

In his television interview, Mr Roque said Brothers to the Rescue had links to the FBI and planned to smuggle arms into Cuba for attacks on Cuban leaders and "very specifically against the Commander-in-Chief [Mr Castro]." Mr Basulto had given him weapons training and asked him for information about Cuban provincial roads where planes could land with explosives to blow up power lines, he said.

Mr Basulto, other group pilots and their many supporters in Miami denounced Mr Roque's statements as nonsense. "All we ever attacked Cuba with was leaflets," Mr Basulto said.

Reaction among Cuban- Americans to President Bill Clinton's measures and the UN Security Council statement ranged from the view that further sanctions would only hurt the suffering Cuban people, through satisfaction, to disappointment that Mr Clinton had not ordered a full-scale naval blockade of the island.

After a 16-hour session, the Security Council denounced Cuba shortly before dawn yesterday but in far milder terms than the US had wanted. It "strongly deplored" the shooting but that carried much less weight than a formal resolution of condemnation - something strenuously opposed by China.

Mr Clinton, describing the Cuban government as "repressive, violent and scornful of international law", suspended charter flights to Cuba, further restricted the movement of Cuban officials in the US, promised a widening of anti-Castro radio broadcasts by exiles, and said he would propose paying the victims' families compensation out of frozen Cuban funds in the US.

He promised to work with the Republican-controlled Congress to pass the so-called Helms-Burton bill, which would tighten the screws on the Castro government and which Mr Clinton had opposed in the past.

Aides pointed out that he would not accept the bill's controversial Title III which would allow US residents to sue third-country governments or companies who had invested in once nationalised property in Cuba which exiles originally owned.

Leading article, page 12

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