Fleeing Cubans shot at

FOUR wounded Cuban 'boat people' who were picked up by US Coast Guard helicopters yesterday said they had been fired on by a Cuban gunboat while attempting to flee to the United States. First reports said the Cubans were among 61 refugees packed on a small boat when it was shot at in the Florida Straits. They were picked up 23 miles from Cuba, about 70 miles from Key West, Florida.

The confrontation lasted several hours and injured seven people, according to the ship's passengers. The Coast Guard brought four wounded people to Key West Memorial Hospital, including the ship's captain who was shot in the neck.

Three others were slightly injured in the confusion aboard the boat and were treated at the scene, Coast Guard officials said. Larisa Cuesta, a stepdaughter of one of the boat's officers, said from the hospital that Cuban gunboats began chasing the boat and fired when it would not stop.

'They kept shooting at us, we showed them the children, they still kept shooting,' Ms Cuesta said. The 125-foot freighter Rene Bedia Morales left Mariel on Cuba's northern coast at about 1am and was soon chased by gunboats, passengers told the Coast Guard.

Arturo Cobo, director of the Cuban Transit Center in Key West, said the confrontation with three Cuban gunboats started in Cuban waters and ended in international waters. He said the gunboats gave up the chase when they saw a Falcon jet sent by the Coast Guard.

American coastguard cutters patrolling the Florida Straits usually pick up any fleeing Cubans sighted in international waters, and the refugees are automatically granted political asylum. About 2,000 Cubans succeeded in making the dangerous crossing last year but for every one who makes it, four are estimated to drown.

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