Relatives await news as U.S. Coast Guard ends search for missing Cubans

Thursday, November 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ The Cuban government has acknowledged the apparent deaths of a group of Cubans whose vessel capsized in rough seas off the coast of Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard suspended the search for the 30 Cubans even as relatives hoped desperately for encouraging news.

Authorities said they found a capsized 30-foot twin-engine craft that may have been carrying the Cubans, including 12 or more children, on a clandestine trip to the United States. Family members of the Cubans said they left Cuba in a speedboat Friday and were expected in Florida by Saturday.

The Coast Guard suspended the search at sunset Wednesday.

``A lot could have happened. I don't want to speculate but it's not a very good scenario _ rough seas, children aboard, not a lot of food and water aboard,'' said Luis Diaz, a spokesman at the Coast Guard's district headquarters in Miami. ``We've given it our best shot.''

The boat's ownership hasn't been determined, but Diaz said officials are ``at least 90 percent certain'' it was carrying the Cubans.

The effort came almost two years after the Thanksgiving Day rescue of Elian Gonzalez off the Florida coast. The boy's mother and 10 others died when their boat capsized on an illegal journey from Cuba to the United States.

In Havana, authorities on Wednesday made their first mention of the missing group and accepted that they had probably died.

Randy Alonso, moderator of the government's daily ``Round Table'' television program, read a government statement blaming the apparent deaths on the U.S. policy of offering Cubans asylum, a law that Havana says encourages Cubans to undertake dangerous journeys.

The latest capsized boat could represent the largest death toll in recent years by Cubans trying to make the 90-mile trip to Florida. Fourteen people died in the sinking of a smuggler's boat in 1998 and about 40 people died in 1994 when a tugboat sank near Havana.

In Florida, relatives of the missing remained close to the telephone and prayed. David Castro said his daughter, Yaquelin Montanes Castro, 29, boarded the boat with her 8-year-old daughter to join him in the United States. He had not seen his daughter in 25 years.

``The last time I saw her she was in school wearing a blue and white handkerchief around her neck with her school uniform,'' Castro said.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Border Patrol officials said 18 Cubans were found near the shore of Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. They told authorities they were smuggled by a Cuban man in a 30-foot white vessel who then departed, said Joe Mellia, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman.

Mellia said the Cubans weren't believed to be connected to those lost in the capsized boat.