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Cuban Plane's Hijacker Surrenders

An AN-24 Cuban aircraft is being refilled Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at the Jose Marti Airpot in Havana, Cuba
AP
The hijacker of a Cuban Airlines plane by a man claiming to have two grenades ended peacefully with his surrender at Key West International Airport Tuesday.

The Soviet-made AN-24 plane had taken off from Jose Marti International Airport about 10:45 a.m. EST, and landed in Florida less than an hour later. CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports there were 25 passengers and 6 crew members aboard. After the plane crossed into American airspace, it was escorted by two F15-Eagles from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.

The hijacker was carrying a small boy in his arms when he came off the plane, Key West police spokesman Steve Torrence said. He was taken into FBI custody.

A bomb squad removed two grenades from the plane and officers were attempting to determine whether they were genuine, he said.

Earlier Tuesday, two separate groups of as many as two-dozen passengers, including a woman holding a small child, jumped from the open back hatch of the plane into the arms of emergency workers. The passengers then boarded buses and were driven off the runway.

Later, two white cars drove onto the airport tarmac and a man aboard one car handed three large, stuffed plastic bags to someone inside the plane. It was unknown what was inside the bags.

Cuban authorities originally reported six children among the 46 people aboard the hijacked craft.

It was not immediately clear what led to the passengers' release almost 12 hours after the man seized control of the plane and demanded to be flown to Florida.

The Cuban Airlines AN-24 was hijacked late Monday on a flight from Cuba's small Isle of Youth to Havana but was forced to land in the capital because it lacked sufficient fuel to make it to the United States, Cuban authorities said.

Shortly after daybreak, a tank with a hose was rolled out onto the tarmac and appeared to be refueling the craft. The plane was surrounded by several dozen uniformed police officers, and two fire trucks and numerous ambulances were parked nearby.

It would be extremely difficult for an average citizen to get access to grenades in communist-run Cuba, where such weapons are heavily guarded by the military.

It was also unclear how anyone would get a pair of grenades through the heavy security checks at Cuba's airports, especially less than two weeks after a successful hijacking on the same route of a passenger plane to the United States.

All incoming and outgoing air traffic at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport appeared suspended during the negotiations. An Iberia Airlines flight to Madrid was grounded and photographers and cameramen at the scene said that they had seen no takeoffs or landings for several hours.

A government statement said the Soviet-made Cuban Airlines plane was on a regular passenger flight from the Isle of Youth's main city of Nueva Gerona when the pilot reported that the craft was being hijacked to the United States by a man armed with grenades.

"The Cuban authorities, for their part, will undertake the maximum effort to find a solution that preserves the safety and lives of passengers and crew members," said the statement.

The statement blamed the hijacking attempt on what Havana says is the lax treatment that six other suspected hijackers received last month after successfully forcing another plane from Cuba to Key West, Fla., at knifepoint.

The suspects in the earlier successful hijack were charged with conspiracy to seize an aircraft by force and violence and face a minimum of up to 20 years in federal prison. They were granted bond, but remain behind bars because they have been unable to come up with the money.

Cuban authorities were pleased that American officials decided to charge the six but were enraged last week when a federal judge decided to set bond over the objections of prosecutors.

"The entire responsibility of what could happen (in the latest hijack attempt) will fall on the government of that country," the Cuban statement said of the United States.

In the March 19 hijacking, six crew members and 25 passengers were on a twin-engine Douglas DC-3 on the same route when knife-wielding hijackers took control of the plane as it descended toward Havana after a trip from the Isle of Youth. They diverted the plane to Key West.

Sixteen of those aboard later opted to return to Cuba and the only non-Cuban on the flight, an Italian, was released in the United States.

The rest of the passengers and crew members on that earlier flight opted to stay in the United States under a U.S. immigration policy that allows Cubans who reach American soil to stay and seek legal residency after a year.