Fugitive Cuban Soldiers Try to Hijack U.S. Charter

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.

About 150 people who lined up outside the terminal for their outgoing flights, or waited for loved ones to arrive from the United States, seemed oblivious that anything may have occurred there earlier.

Two departures for Miami and one to New York later in the day were listed on time, as were the scheduled arrivals from those cities.

The incident was the first hijacking attempt reported in Cuba since the spring of 2003.

On April 1, 2003, a Cuban architect hijacked an airliner on a domestic flight from the Isle of Youth and diverted it to the United States by threatening the pilot and other crew members with fake grenades. The hijacker was later convicted in the United States and sentenced to 20 years.

The previous month, six hijackers forced a Cuban passenger plane carrying 29 passengers to fly to the U.S. at knifepoint. U.S. air force fighter jets forced the plane down in Key West.

Before that, a small Cuban plane, possibly hijacked, crashed in the Gulf of Mexico about 285 miles southwest of Key West after taking off from the south coast of Cuba in September 2000. Nine of the 10 passengers survived.

Frank Calzon, head of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press he deplored all hostage-taking but said Cuban youth are growing increasingly frustrated with the regime.

"The level of desperation of young Cubans is at an all-time high because the Cubans in both Cuba and off the island were hoping that the rule of Mr. Castro would come to an end," he said. "People can put up with a lot of things as long as they think things will get better.

"I am afraid there will be more bloodshed in Cuba if the regime does not take more steps to deal with the growing unrest. That's not necessarily to give up power, but there are some things the regime could do overnight such as allow those Cubans with money to patronize the hotels, clinics and restaurants set aside for foreigners," Calzon added.

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Associated Press reporter Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.


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