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CUBANS IGNORING WARNING AS THEY TAKE TO THE SEA

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They set out in foam boxes, inner tubes and packing crates that pass for rafts, loading their flimsy vessels with bare essentials - a plastic container with water, fried meat and bread, an image of the Virgin Mary or a Santeria deity tucked away, a compass pointing north.

And as they do, Cubans by the thousands are disregarding warnings not to embark on the dangerous journey across the Straits of Florida. Unstated but implicit in the warnings are the many rafters who are feared dead.Although neither the Coast Guard nor voluntary rescue groups have precise numbers, empty rafts spotted from rescue planes, missing-person reports from relatives, accounts by survivors and bodies washing up on Cuban beaches indicate that scores of Cubans have perished in their attempts to reach the United States in recent months.

Oceanographers at the University of Miami who have studied the rafters' path call the voyage an extremely dangerous one and estimate that under certain wind and current conditions, 40 percent of unpropelled rafts will not make landfall.

During the 90-mile crossing of the straits, the refugees brave the elements, sharks and the unpredictability of wind and current that can throw them hundreds of miles off course.

Workers at the Transit Home for Cuban Refugees near Key West say they have treated refugees who have been at sea for up to 17 days, alive but suffering from severe weight loss and infections, with some comatose.

The probabilities for making landfall in Florida that are considered by the oceanographers at the University of Miami do not take into account those rafters who are rescued en route.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Dan Waldschmidt said that with the recently reinforced rescue operation by 19 Coast Guard cutters and five Navy ships, most rafts were being picked up two to three days after departure. He said it was impossible to know how many they might be missing.

But volunteer rescue pilots say they have spotted hundreds of people for whom help, they believe, is unlikely for hours, if at all, because of the sheer numbers of those fleeing by sea.

At least 2,886 new refugees had been picked up by late Tuesday, for a total of more than 8,491 rescued since Friday, when President Clinton announced that Cubans would no longer be automatically admitted to the United States and would instead be detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration announced Wednesday that it is dramatically expanding detention camps at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba to house up to 40,000 refugees.

"We have a flood of boat people on the way to Guantanamo now," Defense Secretary William Perry said at a White House briefing.

Perry said about 9,000 Cubans already have been picked up at sea by U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships, and that 2,000 of those are now at Guantanamo. The 7,000 others are en route to the U.S. base, which is situated in southeastern Cuba. The administration has said those people have no chance of being allowed into the United States.

"Some people feel if you get to Guantanamo you'll get into the United States. That is not so," Attorney General Janet Reno said at the same briefing. To the boat people she said: "Do not risk your lives. It is dangerous."

The administration hopes to reach an agreement to send some of the refugees to the Turks and Caicos Islands and Suriname.

The administration took a hard line on prospects for the refugees being kept at the bleak Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. None of them will be considered for immigration to the United States.