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Appeals court reveals decision on Elian

MIAMI, April 19 -- The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez Wednesday, enjoining the 6-year-old Cuban refugee from leaving the country until his appeals process is completed.

The ruling echoes a temporary order made last week and when it was announced, family supporters outside the Miami home let out a cheer. Hundreds of Cuban Americans later rushed to the neighborhood to celebrate in the streets.

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After the Miami relatives of the little refugee asked the court last week to block the return of the boy to Cuba, the Immigration and Naturalization Service requested an order to transfer the boy to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. That order was not granted.

"We decline to proceed in that matter. We need only to decide on plaintiff's removal from this country," the ruling said.

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It took a three-judge panel nearly six days to reach the decision but it still said it "sets out more questions than answers."

It's all part of an appeal of a decision by Miami U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore allowing the transfer of the boy to his father. Oral arguments are set for May 11.

The ruling Wednesday said the Miami family of greatuncle Lazaro Gonzalez had a "substantial case," and that "it appears that Elian might have the right to appeal for asylum." The family has contended that the law says only that refugees have that right and makes no reference to age.

The INS had ruled that Elian's father in Cuba is the only person who has the right to speak for him.

Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great uncle, said, "As you can see, the Gonzalez family continues to believe in the laws of the United States and we will continue to pray that all of this will come true for Elian and he will be able to remain where his mother wanted to be - in a country of freedom."

A White House spokesman said Wednesday the Justice Department is reviewing the appeals court decision granting an injunction for Elian Gonzales to remain in the country while the custody issue is resolved.

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President Clinton was en route to Oklahoma to attend the dedication of a memorial to the victims of the federal building bombing when the decision was handed down.

White House officials noted that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzales has said he would remain in the United States until the issue is resolved.

Gregory Craig, attorney for Juan Miguel, called on the Justice Department to turn the child over to the father immediately. He said remaining in this country was never an issue, the custody of the child is.

"This child's welfare is in the hands of the U.S. government and any further delay puts that welfare in jeopardy," Craig said. "If the government does not act immediately to remove Elian from the care of Lazaro Gonzalez, it will bear responsibility for the harm that will continue to be inflicted on Juan Miguel's beloved son."

Kendall Coffey, one of the Miami family's attorneys, applauded the ruling and called on the INS to refrain from taking the boy from his Miami relatives and "do nothing to interfere or disrupt or distract the process that this court is committed to - moving very carefully and thoughtfully.

"We think it is plain that this is a very serious appeal, and at the same time no one should make any predictions on the outcome on the basis of this order," Coffey said.

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Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the anti-Castro Democracy movement, said, "This shows that the message here is that this child here has civil rights that must be respected and should be heard."

George Fowler, attorney for the Cuban American National Foundation, renewed the family's call for a meeting with the father to try to solve the problem among themselves.

In a news conference earlier in the day Attorney General Janet Reno left open the possibility that agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service would forcibly take custody of the child.

"There may come a time where there is no other alternative, but we've got to do it in a thoughtful, careful way," she said.

Reno continued to urge haste in the matter.

"I think the (federal) court made it clear in the ruling in the district court, and I think the state court made it clear, that every day that goes by can be disruptive and no child should be in that kind of never-never land for that long," she said.

As for criticism by colleagues that she might have lost her way because she has become too close to the case, she said, "I know where I'm going. If the criticism of me is that I'm trying to avoid violence. If the criticism of me is that I'm trying to avoid that little boy being hurt or being snatched in a way that can scar him further - I plead guilty."

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In comments following the decision, Reno acknowledged that the Justice Department will abide by the appeals court ruling. But she pointed out that that ruling did not prevent reuniting Elian with his father.

Earlier in the day, the south Florida family withdrew a request with a Washington, D.C., for an order preventing the government from sending Elian to Cuba. The attorneys said they would decide what to do about that motion later.

Elian had been placed in the care of his great uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, after he was found hanging onto an inner tube off the south Florida coast Thanksgiving Day. He was one of three survivors of a capsized refugee boat. His mother, who was divorced from his father, and 10 others drowned.

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