Civilian U.S. planes shot down near Cuba

map of Cuba

February 24, 1996
Web posted at: 9:55 p.m. EST

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Two small planes operated by a Cuban-American group apparently were shot down by Cuban fighters over the waters north of Havana Saturday and four people on board were missing, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman told CNN.

In a statement Saturday evening, President Clinton condemned the action in the "strongest possible terms."

A Coast Guard twin-engine "Falcon" search plane flying over international waters spotted two oil slicks, but no debris, according to Petty Officer David French.

French said the Coast Guard had heard reports that other aircraft have spotted survivors in the water, but he couldn't confirm them. He said the Coast Guard had found no signs of survivors.

The two planes are believed to be Cessna aircraft operated by the group "Brothers to the Rescue." A third Cessna reportedly was not shot down and was returning to Miami.

The Coast Guard said four people were believed to have been on board the downed planes.

A spokesman for Brothers to the Rescue told CNN they could not confirm the planes were shot down, since no one saw it happen. The group planned a news conference for later Saturday evening.

Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based group of Cuban exiles funded by private donations, has flown hundreds of missions to spot Cuban rafters attempting to flee their island nations.

A man identifying himself as Armando Alejandro told reporters gathered at the Brothers to the Rescue hangar in Miami that he was the father of the pilot of one of the missing planes. He said he had been told little about his son's fate.

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships and aircraft were on the way to the search area Saturday evening.

Cuba last year issued a clear warning that any boat or plane violating its air space or territorial water would be either sunk or shot down.

Cuban authorities issued this warning last fall, after a Cessna plane flew from Miami, landed on a highway in Cuba, then flew back to the United States.

Jose Hernandez, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, call the shootdown "an act of war" by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"We hope that the United States will call the National Security Council to actually condemn this action by Fidel Castro," Hernandez said. "That's exactly what we expect from Mr. Clinton at this time."

An evening television newscast in Havana did not mention the incident.

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