HAVANA -- Fugitive army soldiers tried to hijack a U.S.-bound plane before it took off Thursday and killed a military officer they took hostage during the failed attempt, the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry blamed U.S. policies that the communist government says encourage Cubans to emigrate to the United States and also said it was a result of Washington's tolerance of violence against Cuba.
The incident began before dawn when the fugitives commandeered a regular city bus near the airport and forced it to drive inside and onto the tarmac of terminal 2, which services charter flights between the Cuban capital and the United States. The exact destination of the plane in the United States was not known, but most charter flights out of terminal 2 fly to Miami.
Army Lt. Col. Victor Ibo Acuna Velazquez was killed aboard the plane but there were no crew members or passengers on board at the time, the ministry statement said.
"Despite being unarmed, he heroically tried to prevent the commission of the terrorist act," the ministry statement said of the officer killed.
The other passengers on the commandeered bus were unharmed and the two fugitive soldiers were arrested.
In Washington, a U.S. transportation official said only: "As far as we know, the plane never got off the ground." The official declined to be identified by name because no official reaction had been authorized.
The incident comes amid an ongoing political campaign by Havana accusing the U.S. government of protecting its archenemy, Luis Posada Carriles. Cuba accuses the 79-year-old Cuban militant of involvement in a deadly airline bombing three decades ago and a string of Havana hotel bombings in the late 1990s.
Hundreds of thousands of people marching in Havana on Tuesday to mark May Day protested the recent release from U.S. custody of Posada Carriles.
"The responsibility for these new crimes lies with the highest-ranking authorities of the United States, adding to the long list of terrorist acts that Cuba has been the victim of for nearly half a century," the ministry statement on Thursday said.
Caridad Carbonel, who has lived in the shadow of Havana's airport for 34 years, said she was awakened by gunfire and saw a vehicle roll onto the tarmac through a side checkpoint.
"Last night, there was a terrible shootout," the 68-year-old said, adding that she saw ambulances swarm the area and had heard about the death of a military officer several hours before Cuba's government confirmed it Thursday evening.
The two soldiers arrested were among three who escaped with automatic rifles from their military base on Sunday after killing a fellow soldier and wounding another. The statement said the third soldier who fled was captured earlier, but it did not say when.
Because they were active soldiers when the crimes occurred, the three almost certainly will face a lightening-quick trial by military tribunal. The death penalty is likely.
There had been a massive manhunt under way for the three. The Defense Ministry over the weekend distributed wanted circulars around Havana, describing the fugitive soldiers as armed and dangerous and saying they were sought for abandoning their posts. Some circulars were displayed in public places, including post offices.
The men, all from the eastern province of Camaguey, were identified as Leandro Cerezo Sirut and Alain Forbus Lameru, both 19, and Yoan Torres Martinez, 21. It was not immediately clear which two were involved in the attempted hijacking.
Throughout Thursday, there were rampant rumors of a shooting at the airport but the Cuban government and its official media were silent for most of the day.
Several baggage handlers told an Associated Press reporter who visited the airport that police had told them to tell anyone who asked to say that nothing had happened there that morning. Even so, none of them had appeared to have heard or seen the pre-dawn incident.
Later Thursday, all was calm and there was no increased police presence at the airport's Terminal 2.
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