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Cuban pilots charged with murder

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A U.S. grand jury indicted two Cuban fighter pilots and their commanding general on murder charges Thursday in the 1996 shootdown of two civilian planes flown by members of a Miami-based Cuban exile group.

Four members of Brothers to the Rescue were killed when a Cuban MiG shot down their unarmed single-engine Cessnas over the international waters of the Florida Straits on February 24, 1996, according to the indictment.

The group was searching for rafters fleeing Cuba. A third Brothers to the Rescue plane managed to escape.

The indictment named Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente -- who headed the Cuban air force at the time -- and the two Cuban MiG pilots, Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez.

The charges include four counts of murder, two counts of destruction of aircraft and one count of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

"This indictment is the next step in ensuring that those responsible for the premeditated murder of defenseless U.S. nationals are brought to justice," said Marcos Daniel Jimenez, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

"There is simply no justification -- legal or otherwise -- for their actions, and as such they must face the consequences."

The United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, so extradition of the men would be impossible.

Ten Cuban intelligence operatives have been convicted of various counts for their participation in the shootdown.

The incident began with a Cuban double agent who provided false information the FBI, according to the indictment.

Juan Pablo Roque defected to the United States in 1992 and became a paid informant to the FBI in 1993. He worked closely with Brothers to the Rescue and other exile groups.

The indictment alleges Roque told the FBI that Brothers to the Rescue had no plans to fly the weekend of February 24.

The day before the shootdown, Roque left the United States for Cuba. He is believed to be still there.

Just three days after the incident, Roque agreed to an interview with CNN in which he denied working for Cuba or being involved with a conspiracy to shoot down the planes. (Transcript)

According to the indictment, around 3 p.m. on February 24, 1996, the Cuban air force scrambled two MiG fighter jets to intercept the exile planes. The two pilots named in Thursday's indictment were in one of the jets, a MiG-29.

Around 3:20 p.m., the two Cuban pilots "demanded that ground control 'authorize' them, but never specified the acts for which they were seeking authorization," according to the indictment.

The indictment said no efforts were made to ask the pilots of the Brothers to the Rescue planes to alter their course.

At the time, however, Lt. Col. Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez said he dipped his wings to warn the planes. When they did not respond, he said, he followed orders and shot them from the sky. (Full story)

The planes were flying away from Cuba at the time.

The indictment says that at 3:21 p.m., the Cuban pilots fired on the first Cessna more than 16 miles from the Cuban coast, killing pilot Carlos Costa, a U.S. citizen, and passenger Pablo Morales, a permanent U.S. resident.

Five minutes later, the indictment alleges, Puente "personally authorized" the MiG-29 to destroy the second aircraft. At 3:28 p.m., the pilots shot down the airplane, killing pilot Mario de la Pena and passenger Armando Alejandre, both U.S. citizens.

Lt. Col. Perez said Cuba had faced 20 months of provocation from Brothers to the Rescue and that fighters had been ordered to scramble almost daily.

In an unprecedented ruling, the families of the victims won a $187 million judgment in December 1997.

Four years later, the families of the three U.S. citizens were paid $58 million in compensatory damages -- money that came from frozen U.S. bank accounts belonging to the Cuban government.

The fourth victim was not a U.S. citizen and his family was unable to sue Cuba. The relatives of the other victims agreed to give his family $3 million of the money awarded to them.

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