US punishes Cuba by tightening embargo

PHIL DAVISON

Miami

Responding to Saturday's shooting down of two American light aircraft by Cuban MiG fighters, President Bill Clinton yesterday announced a tightening of the economic embargo against the Caribbean island, including a suspension of charter flights.

Most significantly, Mr Clinton said he would "move promptly to reach agreement with the [Republican-controlled] Congress" on the so-called Helms-Burton bill on Cuba, tough anti-Castro legislation he has so far strongly opposed. Aides said later, however, that Mr Clinton would insist on changes in the bill, notably on a clause that would impose sanctions on foreign (including British) companies that do business with Cuba.

At a White House news briefing, Mr Clinton did not mention military action but added "I am not ruling out any further steps should they be required". He declined to answer questions.

Although the President blasted the Castro regime as "repressive, violent and scornful of international law", many Cuban Americans immediately expressed disappointment, even outrage at the measures, saying they were largely meaningless and that he was "letting Castro get away with murder."

The President had taken token measures to avoid being outflanked by Republican presidential candidates but had returned to the situation of last year, when he eased restrictions against Cuba, they said.

Mr Clinton also said he would ask Congress to free frozen Cuban assets in the US to pay compensation to the families of four Cuban American pilots believed killed on Saturday. Cuban diplomats in the US would have further restrictions on their movements. Radio Marti, which broadcasts from Florida to Cuba, would be expanded.

The indefinite suspension of charter flights will be the most tangible measure. Cuban Americans had flocked to their homeland on daily flights from Miami in recent months, bringing money and medicine to relatives. Nevertheless, they will still be able to go via third countries.

Meanwhile, there were increasing indications that Havana had decided in advance to shoot down planes of the Brothers to the Rescue group if they approached the Cuban coast as they have been doing for several years looking for refugee boat people.

Diplomats in Havana said that would explain the fact that, while Havana control tower had warned the planes they were in a danger zone the two MiG fighters had not given the warnings demanded by international regulations before firing missiles at the planes.

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's one-party assembly and a right- hand-man to Mr Castro, said in Havana that a pilot who had until recently worked with the Brothers to the Rescue group was now in Cuba. He did not explain the man's status.

In Miami, the group's leader, Jose Basulto, who was in a third Cessna aircraft on Saturday but escaped unharmed, said the man may be a former Cuban air force officer who had infiltrated the group.

Mr Alarcon's implication appeared to be that the man had provided information about the group which led Cuba to take a tougher line with Brothers to the Rescue pilots. A Cuban government statement described the group yesterday as a "terrorist mafia" which it said was plotting against Cuba.

Mr Alarcon said debris from the downed planes, including personal possessions of the pilots, had been found floating in Cuban waters. He defiantly avoided answering repeated foreign reporters' questions as to whether any of the Cuban American pilots had survived.

It appeared likely that the Cuban government would produce the man to back its claim that Brothers to the Rescue was not a humanitarian group but a politically motivated body of anti-Castro activists who deliberately provoked Saturday's incident. "This pilot knows a lot," said the Cuban statement. "Until a few hours ago, he was with the group of violators."

As the UN Security Council prepared yesterday to resume a special session, called by the US and broken off on Sunday, Cuba asked it to delay its deliberations until its Foreign Minister, Roberto Robaina, arrived in New York from a European trip.

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