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Eight car-boat migrants returned to Cuba

Judge gives family of three temporary reprieve

This craft, fashioned from a 1959 Buick, was Luis Grass Rodriguez's second improvised boat.
This craft, fashioned from a 1959 Buick, was Luis Grass Rodriguez's second improvised boat.

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MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- Eight of the 11 Cubans who tried to cross the Florida Straits a week ago in a boat made from a green 1959 Buick car were sent home on Tuesday by the U.S. Coast Guard, which confirmed it had sunk the Buick.

The Coast Guard said it repatriated the group as part of a larger batch of 98 Cuban migrants who were picked up at sea in recent days and delivered to the port of Cabanas in western Cuba on Tuesday morning.

The other three Buick boaters, a family of three, are still being held on a Coast Guard cutter at sea pending a decision on their immigration status.

The Coast Guard, which until now had refused to comment on the group that came on the Buick, said the 11 Cubans were spotted from the air on February 3 by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plane about 43 miles (70 km) north of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba.

Coast Guard cutters arrived at the scene and "despite their initial refusal to leave the dangerous makeshift vessel, the Coast Guard was eventually able to safely stop the migrants and remove them to Venturous (a cutter)," the agency said in a statement.

The Coast Guard said it sank the Buick boat "as a hazard to navigation," confirming what some Cuban exile groups had reported last week.

Some exile groups in Miami, which has a large Cuban American population, had called last week for the craft to be preserved as a symbol of the lengths to which Cubans sometimes go to leave the island and make the 90-mile (140-km) crossing to Florida.

The return of the eight Cubans from the Buick and the other 90 migrants, who were intercepted in three other groups, was standard practice. Cubans caught at sea are generally sent home, unless they can make a case that they might face persecution if returned to the communist island.

But the Buick rafters caught the public imagination last week when Miami television stations obtained images of the group cruising pluckily along in their veteran vehicle.

Four of the 11 had already tried the same trip on a modified 1951 Chevy truck last July, only to be picked up and sent home.

Among those trying for a second time were Luis Grass, his wife, Isora, and their 4-year-old son, Angel Luis.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno on Monday extended an order delaying the possible repatriation of the family until Wednesday at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).

Moreno, who sought more information on the case, was responding to a request from a Cuban-American group to prevent the return of the family, who were in the process of trying to obtain visas to come to the United States.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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