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FLORIDA STRAITS Coast Guard searches for missing Cubans



Published: Tue, August 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A helicopter found a capsized boat Monday.

SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The U.S. Coast Guard searched Monday for as many as 31 Cubans thought to have been on a speedboat that capsized while trying to cross the Florida Straits.

The search began after a merchant ship rescued three Cubans about 30 miles north of Matanzas, Cuba, on Sunday and took them to an unidentified Cuban port. There, the survivors told Cuban authorities that the 28-foot speedboat they had been on sank with 31 other people aboard, the Coast Guard said.

The Cuban government notified the U.S. Coast Guard, which launched a search and rescue effort early Monday morning. A Coast Guard helicopter found a capsized boat about 16 miles from where the merchant ship picked up the three survivors, but it was not clear if it was the boat that the three Cubans were on. Coast Guard crew members flipped the boat over, but found no one trapped beneath the boat and did not find life jackets or debris, Petty Officer Dana Warr said.

By Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard had searched more than 800 square miles and had not located anyone, Warr said. A British navy ship in the area, the HMS Cumberland, assisted with the search. The search and rescue effort also involved three Coast Guard cutters, a C-130 airplane and a Navy H-60 helicopter.

Although the Coast Guard did not have many details on the trip, Coast Guard officials said the fact that a speedboat was involved suggested it was a smuggling operation.

'Wet foot, dry foot'

Many Cubans attempt to enter the United States illegally on board speedboats to avoid the federal government's so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Under that policy, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are generally allowed to remain in the United States under provisions of the Cuban Adjustment Act. Immigration officers interview Cubans who are caught at sea to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution if returned to the island, but the majority of those Cubans are repatriated.

If the survivors' accounts are true, the tragedy would be one of the deadliest immigrant smuggling trips involving Cubans.

The deadliest trip happened in August 2002 when 20 to 25 people died while trying to come to the United States on a 24-foot boat, according to Coast Guard Records. The search in that case spanned 25,000 square miles. Body parts appeared near Fort Pierce and Cape Canaveral.

This summer, at least two Cubans have died while trying to make it to the United States. In June, a man was pronounced dead on arrival at Lower Keys Medical Center after the Coast Guard found him on board a boat they chased off of Key West. On July 31, Joel Agustin Llamas Rodriguez died of head injuries he sustained on his way to the United States aboard a speedboat.

Cuban authorities could not be reached for comment Monday.




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