HAVANA — U.S. officials and Cuban dissidents reacted with anger as Fidel Castro's government arrested more activists and vowed to put them on trial in the country's harshest crackdown on dissent in years.
As tensions with the United States increased, a Cuban airliner carrying 29 passengers was hijacked at knifepoint Wednesday night and landed under U.S. military escort in Key West, Fla. The six hijackers were detained and faced federal air piracy charges.
At least 46 dissidents have been detained in a two-day operation by Cuban state security agents, human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said. He said arrests of anti-government activists were continued Wednesday night.
The detentions come amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Havana, which has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for encouraging dissent on the Caribbean island.
The government accuses the dissidents of being linked to Washington's top diplomat in Havana, James Cason, who during his six months on the island has met publicly with opposition members. In one such appearance last week, he allowed dissident journalists to use his official residence for a meeting.
Cason has defended his actions as attempts to promote democracy and human rights on the Caribbean island.
But following days of sharp criticism from Cuban officials, the government reacted on Tuesday night by announcing an opening round of arrests and restricting the movements of U.S. diplomats based here.
An official statement read on state-controlled television Tuesday night accused the dissidents of "being directly linked to the conspiratorial activities" led by the U.S. mission.
"They have been arrested by the appropriate authorities and will be turned over to the courts of justice," the statement said of the dissidents.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed outrage over the arrests, calling it an "appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."
"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.
In similar roundups in the past, many of those picked up have been released after a few hours or days without formal charges.
Opposition activists here fear that those arrested will be tried under the much-criticized, but never-yet-applied "Law against National Independence," which carries sentences of up to 10 years.
The law passed in February 1999 made it a crime to publish "subversive" materials provided by the U.S. government.
Veteran human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez called it "the most intense repression in recent years."
The U.S. Interests Section here distributes shortwave radios and a wide range of books and pamphlets throughout Cuba with the stated purpose of promoting American culture, democracy and human rights.
The island's best known activists, including Oswaldo Paya — the top organizer of the Varela Project reform effort — were left alone.
At least a dozen of those rounded up were independent journalists.
On Wednesday night, assailants hijacked a Douglas DC-3 bound for Havana from Nueva Gerona, the main city on the small Isle of Youth, U.S. authorities said.
Air Force fighter jets from Homestead Air Force Base and a Black Hawk helicopter from the Customs Service intercepted the Douglas DC-3 as it approached Key West, where it landed at 8:06 p.m. The hijackers surrendered.
There were no immediate reports of injuries among the hijackers, passengers or six crew members. Five of the passengers were minors, an airport spokesman said.
The passengers were being interviewed by U.S. authorities. It was unclear if any had requested asylum or if the hijacking was related to the arrests of dissidents.
Under the new travel restrictions imposed by the Cuban government, U.S. diplomats must get prior approval to travel outside a 434-square-mile area that includes the capital of Havana. Previously, U.S. diplomats had to notify Cuban officials when they traveled outside the Havana region, but no advance approval was necessary.
American government sources said they believe Cuba wants to cut back on the extensive travels here by Cason, who has logged more than 6,200 miles since arriving here in the fall.
Washington last week imposed similar travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the United States, saying it was responding to Havana's move.
Cuban officials are also frustrated over treatment of five convicted Cuban spies now serving time in American prisons. They were recently moved to solitary confinement.
The men were convicted in Miami of trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in Florida and now face sentences ranging from 15 years to life.
Cuban officials have lauded the men as patriotic heroes, insisting they were only working to prevent Cuban exile groups from organizing and executing terrorist acts against their homeland.