The United States granted entry on Wednesday to 25 Cubans who fled their island on a stolen Cuban boat, but a 26th refugee was detained pending further investigation.
In what has erupted into an angry dispute, Cuban officials insisted on Tuesday that all 26 should be returned, asserting that a Cuban navy lieutenant was killed when the boat was hijacked on Monday.Coast Guard officials said on Wednesday night that they could not say if anyone had been killed in the hijacking. Earlier on Wednesday, other Coast Guard officials said their interviews with the exiles indicated that the navy officer reported to have been killed was among the 26 on the boat and might have even led the hijacking.
These officials said the navy officer apparently pushed three other navy officers overboard near Mariel harbor and then took the boat to pick up some friends and relatives.
But late on Wednesday, Coast Guard officials, as well as some Justice and State Department officials, backed off that version, suggesting that some of the exiles might have concocted a story to minimize any charges the hijacker would face.
Lemar Wooley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami, said on Wednesday night that one of the 26 exiles, Leonel Macias Gonzalez, was being detained pending an investigation. Wooley declined to give details about why Macias was being detained.
The 26 Cubans arrived in Key West shortly after noon on Wednesday, 20 hours after a Coast Guard cutter reached their 30-foot boat on Tuesday, 60 miles southwest of the city. The cutter took the 26 Cubans aboard, concerned that the leaky, decrepit Cuban vessel would founder. It later sank, Coast Guard officials said.
It was the fourth Cuban vessel to be hijacked within two weeks, a development that has angered the Cuban government, which insists that Washington's accepting the defectors encourages more such criminal acts. Aggravating tensions between the two countries, rioting broke out in Havana on Friday when many Cubans, hearing rumors that a ferry had been hijacked, rushed to the harbor to flee, only to find that there was no vessel to transport them.
Over the past decade, the United States has not returned exiles who hijacked Cuban boats, even when they used force.