Havana gives the rafters three days to clear beaches

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ONE DAY after reaching an agreement with the US to end the exodus by sea of its citizens, the Cuban government yesterday gave would-be emigrants three days to dismantle their rafts and leave the beaches.

In a statement published in yesterday's newspapers, the regime said that during a grace period of 72 hours it would only be 'exhorting' Cubans not to take to the ocean, but thereafter force would be used.

The announcement suggests Havana is serious about its side of the bargain, reached in New York on Friday, under which the US has agreed to issue visas to allow at least 20,000 Cubans to enter America annually. The deal was 'fully acceptable', officials in Havana remarked.

The workability of the accord over the longer term seems uncertain, however. There is particular concern over the reaction of 25,000 Cubans, who have already made the perilous journey to Florida only to be picked up and detained in camps at Guantanamo Bay and Panama. Under the deal, they have the option of remaining in the camps or returning to Cuba and joining the end of the long queue for American visas.

Any unrest at the camps would quickly raise the ire of the Cuban-American lobby in the US, and spoil an agreement that Washington is hailing as a victory. Even before this weekend, sporadic incidents of violence have occurred at the Guantanamo base, which also houses Haitian refugees. 'The Clinton administration will come under pressure from the Cuban-American community to resolve the Guantanamo situation,' Peter Hakim, president of Inter- American Dialogue, said.

Washington, meanwhile, is publicising plans for a possible invasion of Haiti, perhaps by 21 September, in the hope that the regime will be persuaded to leave before the order is given. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is being sent to Haitian waters.