MIAMI, Feb. 24 -- Cuban military planes Saturday downed two civilian aircraft belonging to a Florida-based Cuban exile group off the coast of Cuba, U.S. officials said. President Clinton said national security adviser Anthony Lake briefed him on the 'shooting down today in broad daylight of two American civilian airplanes by Cuban military aircraft.' 'I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,' Clinton said during a campaign stop near Seattle. Clinton said he ordered U.S. diplomats in Havana to demand 'an immediate explanation' from the Cuban government. U.S. Coast Guard vessels combed the waters north of Havana, searching for four people who were believed aboard the two Cessna aircraft belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based group that patrols the Florida Straits in search of Cuban rafters fleeing Cuba. A third plane accompanied the two, but returned safely to the group's headquarters at Opa Locka airfield, northwest of Miami. 'I strongly believe that Cuban MiGs downed Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international waters,' said Jose Basulto, who was in the third plane. A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington had no immediate comment on the incident, and official media in Cuba carried no mention of the downing late Saturday. Brothers to the Rescue spokesman Jorge Llares identified the four people aboard the two downed planes as pilots Carlos Costa and Mario de la Pena and observers Armando Alejendre and Pablo Morales. The two people from the third plane were Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, and pilot Arnaldo Iglesias, who were questioned by federal authorities, including officials from the FAA and U.S. Customs.
All of the men were from the Miami area. Clinton said he ordered U.S. fighter jets to 'fully protect' the Coast Guard vessels searching for survivors. 'We are investigating the circumstances of the incident, what if any warnings were given' to the Cessna's pilots. It remained unclear whether the aircraft were in Cuban airspace when the downing took place. 'Apparently they were engaged sometime near the territorial waters of Cuba, because the search-and-rescue site that is now being looked at by the Coast Guard is approximately 18 nautical miles north of Havana, which would place it in international waters just outside the territorial limits of Cuba,' White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters traveling with the president. Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr said his agency received a call from the Federal Aviation Administration shortly before 4 p.m. EST alerting them to the possibility that two planes had crashed off the Cuban coast. 'We were told the aircraft were reported down about 20 miles northwest of Havana,' he said. 'We sent a Falcon jet, two helicopters and two cutters to investigate and to search for survivors.' The jet found nothing conclusive. 'The pilot reported seeing two oil slicks in the water, but nothing else,' Carr said. 'We don't know what caused them. For all we know they could have come from a boat dumping oil over the side.' The planes' pilots had filed flight plans with the FAA indicating they were going to the Bahamas, the White House spokesman said. McCurry would not specify how the administration learned of the downing, but said, 'Obviously, we monitor military activity in that area very carefully.' Brothers to the Rescue planes routinely fly near Cuban airspace, and last summer flew over Havana to drop anti-Castro leaflets. At that time, the Castro government warned U.S. planes to stay out of Cuban airspace or risk being shot down. Brothers spokesman Llares denied the Cessna 337 Skymasters had strayed into Cuban air space. 'I had talked with all three planes 15 minutes before I lost contact with two of them, and I guarantee they were over international waters,' he said. 'They were flying a strict search-and-rescue mission and did not overfly the island.' Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., a longtime opponent of Castro's rule, said the Cuban leader would be 'surprised by the ferocity of the American reaction' to the incident. 'He took American lives and shot down an American plane...He is nothing but a brutal dictator,' he said. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., denounced Clinton's response to the incident as 'woefully inadequate.' 'What we saw today was the announcement by Fidel Castro, by the Cuban dictatorship, that they can take over international waters with impunity and all the president did was ask for an explanation from Fidel,' said Diaz-Balart. 'This was an act of piracy by the Castro dictatorship and it demands a swift response before the Security Council of the United Nations, and not this farce that Clinton offered today,' he added. Diaz-Balart called for an international blockade of Cuba to end what he called a 37-year reign of violence against freedom by Castro. The leader of another exile group called the incident 'an act of war' against the United States. Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation urged the United States to call a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the downing.