Man who tried to break into cockpit 'not a terrorist'
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- The attorneys for a Uruguayan man accused of trying to force his way into the cockpit of a Buenos Aires-bound commercial jet said Friday their client is "not a terrorist" and "has no affiliation or association with any terrorist organization."
Pablo Moreira has been charged with interfering with a flight crew. Authorities said he is the man who was subdued by the flight crew and passengers after partially breaking into the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 855, which took off from Miami.
The 29-year-old bank employee could face up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of the charge, which stems from the incident aboard the Boeing 767, carrying 157 passengers and crew members, on Thursday.
Moreira made his first court appearance Friday, appearing before U.S. Magistrate Peter Palermo to hear the charge against him. Palermo ordered Moreira temporarily detained until a bond hearing, which he set for Tuesday.
Prosecutors to seek 'harsh' punishment
Federal prosecutors said they would ask the judge to deny bond, and added they intend to prosecute the case "in the harshest, most strict fashion that we can."
"I think the best person to ask on (whether Moreira is a terrorist) would be one of those passengers," said Guy Lewis, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
"Let me make it absolutely clear, whether it is assaulting a flight officer (or) pushing a flight attendant, it is absolutely not going to be tolerated," he said.
Lewis also commended the passengers and crew aboard the plane, saying they acted admirably amid the chaotic situation that the incident must have been.
Defense attorneys Bruce Udall and Allan Sullivan said they had just been hired to defend Moreira, and had little comment on the case.
"The circumstances which brought him here are quite unfortunate," Sullivan told reporters outside the Miami courtroom. "But we're going to have to be heard at a later date about those circumstances." FBI officials said Moreira was very quiet during the flight back from Argentina -- a regularly scheduled United Airlines flight -- and as he was taken off the plane in Miami. Moreira sat in the rear of the plane flanked by two Argentine marshals and two members of the U.S. State Department diplomatic security team, officials said.
"He's been very cooperative," FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said Friday morning. "We've had no problems with him whatsoever so far."
Suspect wacked with an ax
Thursday morning, the co-pilot of United Flight 855 struck Moreira on the head with the flat side of a hatchet after he partially forced his way into the cockpit, officials and passengers said. The plane landed safely in Buenos Aires.
Moreira, who speaks English, had been in Miami for a banking conference. Moreira's brother in Argentina said his sibling is a nervous flier who does not like turbulence.
An FBI spokesman told CNN early Friday that Moreira did not appear to be injured, although a United spokeswoman said he sustained some injuries.
Despite the fact the cockpit door had been retrofitted with a bar inside designed to prevent unauthorized entry, Orihuela said the man was able to break through part of the door and squeeze halfway in. One passenger said Moreira crawled through the bottom part of the door after it was broken.
At that point, "the co-pilot took an ax and hit him on the head," Orihuela said.
Officials said the small ax is standard equipment in a cockpit.
A United Airlines spokeswoman credited the bar and a quick-acting crew with keeping Moreira from completely entering the cockpit. She said the bar is a temporary fix until a permanent system to secure the cockpit bulkhead can be installed.
Spokeswoman Chris Nardella said United Airlines has asked the FAA for permission to equip its pilots with stun guns.
Officials said Moreira, who was traveling in coach class, was not carrying a weapon.
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