US rejects Cuba plea for return of boy rejected

ESCALATING AN already bitter political dispute, the United States yesterday rejected Cuban demands for the repatriation of a six-year-old boy and warned of unspecified consequences if US diplomats in Havana were not protected. The strong words came from the White House and State Department as protesters thronged around the US mission in the Cuban capital for the second day.

On Sunday, the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, gave Washington 72 hours to hand over Elian Gonzalez, accusing the US of kidnapping him. Gonzalez's mother and stepfather died when their refugee boat capsized in a storm. The child was found clinging to an inner tube in waters off Florida on Thanksgiving Day and rescued by the US Coast Guard.

He was entrusted to relatives in Miami, where he celebrated his birthday yesterday.

No sooner had word reached Cuba, however, than his natural father broadcast an emotional appeal for his return, accusing his former wife of taking him out of the country illegally. Both sets of grandparents live in Cuba and joined his plea, which has the support of the Cuban authorities. US officials say that the case will be settled by the immigration authorities, or by the courts.

But what began as essentially a custody dispute has now escalated into a major political stand-off, just a week before US officials are due to travel to Cuba for routine talks on ensuring the orderly flow of migrants from Cuba. Mr Castro has threatened to cancel the talks.

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