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Castro visits hijacked ferry site

Cuba says three hostages were released

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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuban President Fidel Castro on Thursday visited the port of Mariel where at least 30 men, women and children were being held hostage aboard a ferry tethered about 30 feet from the dock, a source familiar with the situation told CNN.

Three hostages were released at some point in the day, the Cuban government said.

It was not clear how much time Castro spent at the dock or what the purpose of his visit was.

The source said at least a dozen alleged hijackers were involved. The Cuban government estimated there were about eight or 10 hijackers, describing them as very violent.

At one point, the source said, they were threatening female hostages with knives and at least one firearm.

A statement from the Cuban government said the hijackers released three people -- two women and a man -- because of their physical conditions.

The statement also said the hijackers were demanding to have the vessel refueled so they could go to the United States.

The Cuban government said it would use force if the hostages' conditions become critical, the statement added.

The ferry was hijacked Wednesday and left Cuba, heading into the Florida Straits.

FBI stands down

The Cuban government alerted U.S. authorities about the situation, and the FBI sent hostage negotiators to the area where the ferry was drifting. The vessel then moved slowly northeast, about 60 miles from Key West, Florida.

Key West is about 90 miles from Cuba.

"At no point did our agents make contact with the boat," said FBI spokesman Wayne Russell, adding that the bureau left the scene in the evening.

"The Cuban government is taking charge of the situation. We are standing down," FBI special agent Judy Orihuela said late Wednesday.

The ferry was eventually towed back to Cuba around 1 a.m. EST with the consent of the hijackers because big waves in the open sea put the boat at risk of capsizing, the Cuban government statement said.

U.S. statement read on Cuban TV

"There were communications between the two governments on the issue," said the source familiar with the situation.

A commentator on Cuba's state-run television read a statement Wednesday night from James Cason, mission chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

"If it wasn't the first time, it was the first time in a long time a U.S. official has had that kind of direct contact with the Cuban people," said Gonzalo Gallegos, a spokesman for the U.S. Interests Section.

Cason's statement warned that "any hijacker of any nationality, including Cubans" would face criminal prosecution if caught hijacking any means of transportation to the United States, Gallegos said.

Gallegos said Cason's statement was also published in two Cuban newspapers and read on state radio.

Third recent hijacking

Wednesday's alleged ferry hijacking was the third similar incident in a two-week span.

A Cubana Air passenger plane was hijacked to Key West on Tuesday. Another plane from the government airline was also hijacked to Key West on March 19. Both planes remain at the Key West International Airport; no one was hurt in either incident.

The hijackers in both cases were arrested and face federal criminal prosecution.

The hijackings come amid a new Cuban government effort to crack down on dissidents. Several human rights advocates and other dissidents have been taken into custody. The trials for the first group arrested began Thursday.

The trials are closed to the international press.

Gallegos said the United States attempted to send U.S. representatives to observe the trials, but they were not allowed inside.

Also Thursday, Gallegos said Cuban authorities searched the home of Cuban Human Rights Party President Odilia Collazos and inventoried everything in her home. The inventory might be used by the government if it chooses to make an arrest.

CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Tony Valdez in the CNN Havana Bureau contributed to this report.

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