KEY WEST, Fla., April 1 (UPI) -- A hijacked Cubana Airlines plane with as many as 31 passengers and crew aboard arrived safely without incident at Key West Tuesday after a short flight from Cuba.
The plane was escorted by an F-16 from an Air Force Reserve base in Homestead, Fla., for most of the flight from Havana. A military helicopter was also dispatched to the Key West airport.
The hijacker, who has not been identified, surrendered to Monroe County sheriff's deputies. He faces the possibility of a 20-year jail sentence if he is convicted of hijacking.
Cuban authorities said the Russian-built Antonov-24 was commandeered on a flight from Nueva Gerona on the Isle of Youth, off Cuba's southern coast, to Havana by a man with two hand grenades. It was forced to land and spend the night in Havana because it did not have enough fuel to get to Florida.
The hijacker negotiated for fuel with authorities at Jose Marti Airport, and after the plane was refueled it left Havana for Key West at 10:50 a.m. EST. It arrived in about an hour.
Cuban officials said the flight originally had 46 passengers aboard, but the hijacker released 26 of them Tuesday morning before it left for Key West.
The FAA said, however, there were 25 passengers and six crewmembers on the plane when it arrived in Key West and more than a dozen had been released in Havana.
The passengers who were freed in Havana, including a woman with a baby, jumped from an emergency hatch.
Mike Haskins, spokesman for the city of Key West, said sheriff's officers surrounded the plane when it arrived and passengers came off the plane one by one.
Women and children were herded to one area and the men were ordered to take the prone position on the tarmac while they were searched.
"The people aboard will be turned over to immigration and, of course, the hijacker will be arrested," Haskins said.
In a similar incident March 19, a DC-3 was hijacked by six passengers on a flight from Nueva Gerona to Havana and flown directly to Key West with 37 people aboard. The six hijackers were arrested.
The Cuban government laid the blame for both hijackings on the United States for its lenient policy toward migrants, and said more serious incidents could result in the future.
"The entire responsibility of what could happen will fall on the government of that country," it said.