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Cuban plane hijacking suspect held

Officials say among passengers were suspect's wife and child

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KEY WEST, Florida (CNN) -- Federal authorities took into custody a man wearing a windbreaker with "America" stitched on the back after a hijacked Cuban passenger plane landed at Key West airport Tuesday with 32 passengers and crew aboard, police said.

Authorities said among the passengers were the suspected hijacker's wife and 3-year-old child. The plane carried a crew of seven.

The suspect, identified as Adermis Wilson Gonzalez, will be charged with hijacking an aircraft and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison or more if convicted, a Justice Department official told CNN. The government will ask that the defendant not be released on bond.

The passengers and crew were interviewed by federal authorities at the airport before being turned over to immigration officials, said Steve Torrence of the Key West Police Department. None appeared injured.

Gonzalez, described as about 25 years old, was being held in Key West International Airport's U.S. Customs building where he was being questioned by federal authorities, Torrence said.

The suspect was reported to be carrying two hand grenades when he took control of the plane after it left Nueva Gerona on Monday.

The bomb squad from the Monroe County Sheriff's Department searched the plane after taking "two items" from the suspect, Torrence said.

The items were placed in a heavy metal box. The box will be X-rayed to determine whether "it was anything explosive," Torrence said.

Second hijacking in two weeks

Cuban officials said six children and 40 adults, including crew, were onboard the Soviet-built Antonov 24 was when it was commandeered.

The plane landed at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport Monday evening because it did not have enough fuel to cross the Florida Strait to Florida, as the hijacker demanded.

Negotiations produced the release Tuesday morning of several passengers, apparently in exchange for fuel. Food was also put on board before the departure.

The passengers were released about three hours after a fuel tanker approached the plane to refuel it. They appeared to be in good health and were seen boarding buses to be taken to airport transit lounges.

The plane was escorted into Key West by two U.S. Air Force jets scrambled from Homestead Air Force Base to intercept the plane before it left Havana, said a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman.

There were three children in the group that landed in Key West, including a young boy Gonzalez carried in his arms as he left the plane.

When Gonzalez let the little boy down on the tarmac, the child grabbed his leg, Torrence said. He then went into the arms of a woman.

It was the second time in two weeks that a Cuban plane has been hijacked to the United States, and Cuba blames what it calls U.S. leniency toward hijackers for the incidents.

American policy "continues to be that Cubans should arrive here only through safe, legal and orderly means," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Tuesday.

"I think we've seen once again that Cubans are seeking to flee Cuba due to the lack of political and economic freedom that has spurred so many of them to undertake illegal voyages to the United States," Reeker said.

Reeker said the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, went to the airport control tower in Havana and explained to the suspect that air piracy "was a very serious federal offense in the United States and that if he arrived in the United States, U.S. law enforcement authorities would investigate and prosecute this crime."

The previous hijacking, on March 19, also involved a flight from Nueva Gerona. A hijacked DC-3 landed in Key West and six people aboard were charged with conspiracy to seize an aircraft by force.

The charge carries a minimum penalty of 20 years in prison upon conviction. A federal magistrate granted the suspects release on $25,000 property bond and the government is appealing.

CNN correspondents Susan Candiotti and Patti Davis, CNN Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman and State Department producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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