MIAMI -- A Cuban pilot and at least one accomplice comandeered a Cuban commercial plane to Miami, where most of the 53 people on board asked for political asylum Tuesday, federal agents said.
Customs spokesman Michael Sheehan said the pilot of Aero-Caribbean Flight 360 'definitely was a prime instigator' in diverting the plane to Miami.
About 9 a.m., about a half-hour after the regularly scheduled flight left Havana for the Cuban beach resort Varadero, the pilot made an emergency call to air traffic controllers in Havana.
'The pilot of the plane contacted Havana saying they were being kidnapped to the United States,' said Anne Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The message was relayed to air traffic controllers in Miami and the plane landed at Miami International Airport a few minutes later, about 9:20 a.m., Eldridge said.
The plane was met by Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI and Customs agents, who said the pilot had arranged to divert the plane to Miami with the aid of a copilot who posed as a regular passenger.
'After they took off, the original copilot was somehow lured into the passenger compartment, at which time he was restrained, either with handcuffs or ropes,' said Customs spokesman Michael Sheehan.
'At the same time, the security officer on board was given some chloroform to pacify him and he was also restrained.
'When that was done, a person who appeared to be a normal passenger went forward to the cockpit. That person was in fact a copilot who had been there to assist in the flight to Miami,' Sheehan said.
Dan Gelber, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said authorities were still questioning the passengers and crew, and said it would be premature to speculate whether hijacking charges would be filed.
It was not clear who overpowered the original copilot and the guard, or whether any of the passengers knew of the plan to fly to Miami.
'It appears that more were knowledgeable. How many were knowledgeable, how much preparation went into it, has not been determined,' Sheehan said.
The security guard, whose hands and feet were still bound when the plane landed, was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital for treatment of undisclosed injuries.
A ground maintenance worker at the airport said that as the crew was escorted from the plane, the original copilot took a swing at the pilot.
'They opened the back doors and the police and the Customs stormed in and brought the pilot and the copilot out and they started fighting, throwing punches. It took about three or four police officers to separate them,' said the ground worker, Manny Palencar.
'This guy asked who was the one that wants to be here and the pilot raised his hand. He was happy to be here. You could see it in his face. The other guy (the copilot) was really, really mad and ticked off that he had to be here,' Palencar said.
Eldridge said there were 45 adults and eight children on board the twin-engine turbo prop, a Soviet-made Antonov 26.
Chris Mangos, an airport spokesman, said all but five of those on board had asked for political asylum. Those who said they wanted to return to Cuba were the original copilot, his wife and child, the security guard and a flight attendant.
Those seeking political asylum were being interviewed by immigration agents.
Sheehan said the Cubans probably would send another crew to fly the plane back to Havana.
'They'll get it back. They'll talk with our State Department sometime in the next several days,' Sheehan said.
The official Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, called the incident 'a new act of international terrorism' encouraged by the United States' anti-Cuban policies dating back 30 years.
'Official sources consulted by Prensa Latina said they considered that this new act of international terrorism was encouraged by a North American policy designed to give asylum to all illegal emigrants while there are delays in the process for legal emigration,' the news agency said in a dispatch monitored in Mexico City.
Prensa Latina, which refers to the United States as 'North America,' also said there is no anti-piracy agreement between the two nations, which have been on bad terms since just after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
The United States tightened economic sanctions against the island nation this year and severe shortages of all goods have sparked increasingly daring attempts by Cubans to flee their socialist homeland.
The news agency said none of those fleeing Tuesday had been subject to political persecution.