US calls on UN after two planes shot down

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The Independent Online
Phil Davison Miami

The United States sought an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council yesterday, after the shooting down on Saturday of two Miami-based private light aircraft by Cuban MiG fighters off Havana. The session was due to begin last night in New York. US Coast Guard vessels continued to search for the planes' four Cuban-American crewmen, all pilots from the Brothers to the Rescue volunteer group, which looks for Cuban rafters in the Straits of Florida. Hopes for the men faded, however, after shocked holidaymakers aboard a cruise liner reported seeing the two planes blown to pieces by air-to-air missiles and Coast Guard search vessels reported seeing nothing but two oil sheens. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said the US requested the Security Council session because of Cuba's "blatant violation" of international law. US officials said neither of the planes had entered Cuban airspace although a third, which returned safely to Miami, appeared to have done so. The other two were shot down over international waters, they said. The Cuban government insisted the planes had been shot down within five to eight miles from Cuba, over territorial waters, after ignoring warnings from Havana airport control tower and the MiGs. President Bill Clinton condemned the incident "in the strongest possible terms" and was considering, according to Mr Christopher, a range of retaliatory options. American jet fighters patrolled the Straits yesterday, while the Coast Guard searched an area 25 miles north-west of Havana in international waters, although hope of finding the missing men alive appeared slim. The MiGs, one man on the cruise ship Majest y of the Seas said, "just appeared out of nowhere and shot". Another passenger said: "A missile hit [one] airplane and just blew it to pieces. There was hardly any wreckage, just 'boom' and it was gone in a puff of smoke." Cuba called the four-seat Cessnas "pirate planes", and a foreign ministry statement said their fate was "a lesson to those who consider or carry out acts that tend to increase tensions between the US and Cuba". While Mr Clinton's first reaction was guarded, the incident appeared certain to become a US election issue, at least in Florida, during the run-up to next month's primaries. Cuban-American members of Congress talked of "an act of war" by President Fidel Castro and called for action "similar to the all-out blockade on Haiti". "They were shot down in cold blood," said Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "You can't play footsie with a dictator. You can't wine and dine a dictator. I think it's time to call Castro's bluff." Although loud and influential, Cuban-Americans are a minority in Florida and the incident is a delicate one for presidential candidates. US officials said privately that the planes may have been heading to Cuba to fly out dissidents. The officials also noted the Brothers to the Rescue had been warned several times by Cuba that they would be shot down if they approached the coast, particularly after they reached the Havana seafront last month and dropped anti-Castro leaflets. The State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration had also warned the group's pilots they could not guarantee their safety if they flew south of the 24th parallel, generally regarded as the air traffic control boundary between the US and Cuba.

Before sunrise, several days a week, the Brothers to the Rescue pilots stand in a circle , join hands, bow their heads and pray for success and their safe return. They have saved thousands by guiding the Coast Guard to their rafts, but fear that forever y refugee saved, several are lost at sea. Fellow pilots said the missing men would have been wearing lifejackets and carried inflatable life rafts, and knew how to attract attention. They also knew that spotting a raft, even in the best weather and flying just above the waves, is like looking for a needle in a haystack. One of the crewmen, Pablo Morales, escaped from Cuba on a raft in 1992 and was rescued by the Br others after waving a statue of the Virgin Mary at a passing plane.