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Haitians flee to U.S. in boats

A Coast Guard vessel intercepts the freighter Margot off the Florida coast on Wednesday evening.
A Coast Guard vessel intercepts the freighter Margot off the Florida coast on Wednesday evening.

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- The U.S. Coast Guard said Thursday it has picked up more than 500 Haitians attempting to flee their troubled island home by sea and will send most of them back to Haiti, where a spreading rebellion has stoked fears of a new wave of refugees.

At least 524 Haitians will be taken Friday to the Haitian coast guard base on the island's coast, U.S. officials said. That includes 283 intercepted on one ship, 213 on another and a freighter with 17, intercepted off the coast of Florida.

Another small vessel was being intercepted Thursday night with just a few people aboard, the officials said.

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the Haitians aboard the freighter "hijackers." The refugees are being held aboard the vessel off the Florida coast. The governor urged the federal government to send them back.

But the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement Thursday calling on all governments to receive refugees from Haiti and to respond humanely.

"Obviously, not everyone who leaves a country is a refugee, but those who are forced to flee must have access to international protection," said Hope Hanlan, the refugee agency's regional director for the Americas.

President Bush warned Wednesday that any Haitians attempting to flee to the United States would be sent home.

Petty Officer Crystal Norman, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, told CNN that most of the Haitians were taken aboard Coast Guard cutters from boats in the Windward Passage, the strait separating Haiti from Cuba. Most, if not all, will be repatriated to Haiti, she said.

About 40,000 people fled Haiti after a 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many of them died attempting to make the 600-mile trip to Florida in overcrowded, unsafe vessels.

Seventeen Haitian migrants -- all male -- were questioned Thursday aboard the freighter the Coast Guard stopped off Miami after its captain reported the vessel had been hijacked. By Thursday night, the interviews were over, said two law enforcement sources.

The Panamanian-flagged freighter the Margot and those aboard were being held again Thursday night about seven miles offshore. The investigation into the incident was continuing.

In addition to the 17 male Haitian nationals, the 200-foot boat held four legitimate passengers and seven crew members.

"They [migrants] should be sent back to Haiti," the president's brother told reporters Thursday in Tallahassee. "They hijacked a boat, a large vessel, and unless they have a well-founded fear of persecution that is specific and meets the criteria of our laws, they should be sent back."

The captain of the Margot reported that armed Haitians hijacked it Sunday and demanded he sail to Florida. The Coast Guard seized three shotguns and a pistol after boarding the ship Wednesday evening.

CNN correspondent John Zarrella, Justice correspondent Kelli Arena and assignment editor Rich Phillips contributed to this report.

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