February 24, 1996
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EST (0545 GMT)
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Two small planes operated by a Cuban-American group were shot down by Cuban fighters over the waters north of Havana and the four people on board were missing, President Clinton and the U.S. Coast Guard said Saturday.
Clinton said he had been briefed on "the shooting down Saturday in broad daylight of two American civilian airplanes by Cuban military aircraft."
"I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms," Clinton told reporters< in Seattle, Washington.
The two planes with four people on board were twin-engine Cessna aircraft operated by the group "Brothers to the Rescue," a Miami-based group of Cuban exiles funded by private donations. The group has flown hundreds of missions to spot Cuban rafters attempting to flee their island nations.
Group founder Jose Basulto was on a third plane that escaped the gunfire and returned to Miami.
Basulto said all three planes had radioed Cuban air traffic controllers to identify themselves and report their intentions to search international waters for Cuban refugees who may be on rafts.
"But I believe, I strongly believe, that Cuban MiG downed two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international waters."
-- Jose Basulto
Basulto described seeing two Cuban MiG fighters approach them while they were at least 20 miles north of the Cuban coast, 8 miles into international waters. Shortly after that, he lost radio contact with the other two Cessnas.
"I kept calling them both and heard no answer," Basulto said. "At that time we decided to proceed north and go into the clouds for cover, because we feared that something dreadful had happened."
Basulto said he has given U.S. officials the recording of the radio exchanges with Cuban authorities, which he said would confirm his story.
"But I believe, I strongly believe, that Cuban MIGs downed two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international waters," Basulto said.
Clinton ordered the Coast Guard to search for any survivors and the U.S. military to support and protect the searchers at the edge of Cuban territorial waters.
F-16 and F-15 fighter jets were flying over the search area to provide "continuous" air cover, according to the U.S. Atlantic Command.
The Nantucket, a 110-foot Coast Guard vessel, was on the scene Saturday evening searching with spotlights and night-vision goggles, Petty Officer Scott Carr said. A C-130 aircraft was also flying overhead looking.
A Coast Guard twin-engine "Falcon" search plane earlier spotted two oil slicks, but no debris, in international waters, according to Petty Officer David French.
French said the Coast Guard has heard reports that other aircraft have spotted survivors in the water, but he couldn't confirm them. He said the Coast Guard has found no signs of survivors.
The twin-engine Cessnas were equipped with survival gear, including a six-man raft in each one, according to the Coast Guard.
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 has been told very little about his son's fate.
Cuba last year issued a very clear warning that any boat or plane that violated its air space or territorial waters would either be sunk or shot down.
Cuban authorities issued the warning last fall, after a Cessna plane flew from Miami, landed on a highway in Cuba, then flew back to the United States.
Clinton said the U.S. was investigating the circumstances of the incident, including the airplane's flight plan and route, and what, if any, warnings were given.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, criticized Clinton's reaction as too soft.
"This is an act of piracy by the Castro dictatorship, and it must be reacted to seriously by the administration by going to the Security Council at the United Nations, and not this farce that we just saw by the president of the United States of asking Castro for the facts so they can do spin control together," Rep. Diaz-Balart said.
Even if it's found the planes were in Cuban airspace when shot down, it was still an illegal act, he said. "International law does not even permit criminals to be shot down, much less American citizens on an humanitarian mission in international waters with a proven track record of humanitarian work and never having taken up a firearm," Diaz-Balart said.
Jose Hernandez, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, called the shoot-down "an act of war" by 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."
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