Refugees 'forced vessel to leave Cuba'

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The Independent Online
KEY WEST (Reuter, AP) - Cuban gunboats fired on a hijacked freighter filled with Cubans fleeing the Communist-ruled island, wounding four passengers including a child before the vessel escaped early on Saturday, according to the US Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Lieutenant-Commander Jim Rendon said the passengers overpowered the engineer and a deck hand aboard the 125ft (40m) freighter, Rene Bedia Morales, and forced the vessel to leave Cuba. The two crewmen asked to return to Cuba, and were sent home by US authorities.

Two US Coast Guard helicopters picked up the wounded passengers from the freighter in international waters 75 miles (120km) south-west of Key West, Florida, or about 15 miles north of the Cuban coast. Four were taken to hospital in Key West for treatment of gunshot wounds. A hospital spokesman said that one was in critical condition.

Passengers said three gunboats chased and tried to stop the freighter soon after it left Mariel on Cuba's northern coast about 1am on Saturday. They said the gunboats continued to fire even after passengers showed them children were aboard. 'At one point they threw ropes to try to drag us in. We cut the rope to get loose again,' said a passenger.

The shooting continued for more than four hours, passengers said, moving from Cuban to international waters.

The Coast Guard received the first sketchy report of the incident from a ham radio operator in Panama before daybreak on Saturday, and sent a plane to search for survivors. The Coast Guard sent two cutters to meet the vessel.

The remaining passengers were reported in good condition, and were to be questioned by immigration authorities before being handed over to a refugee resettlement agency.