President Clinton sharply condemned the shooting down of two American civilian planes by Cuban military aircraft Saturday and dispatched F-15 fighters to protect search and rescue operations.
He demanded an immediate explanation from the Cuban government.
The planes took off from a Florida airport and were downed in broad daylight, apparently as they flew toward the coast of Cuba despite a flight plan saying they would not approach the island.
“Visual identification of these aircraft would have indicated they are civilian aircraft,” White House press secretary Mike McCurry said. “They are small, civilian aircraft. And it would be hard to imagine an adequate explanation for an event of this nature.”
McCurry said they were three Cessna 337 Skymasters “apparently en route to Cuba.”
In Washington, a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that, while details were still murky, early indications suggested the planes may have been heading to Cuba to land, pick up people and fly them out of the country.
McCurry said the planes were engaged “near the territorial waters of Cuba.” He said the search and rescue by U.S. Coast Guard ships was under way 12 miles north of Cuba, outside its territorial waters.
Clinton said he ordered U.S. military forces to support the rescue operation “to ensure that it is fully protected.”
McCurry said F-15 fighter planes were scrambled to provide air cover.
“They are instructed to take those steps necessary to protect the search and rescue operation now under way,” McCurry said.
McCurry said three small planes had taken off from Florida and filed flight plans saying their destination was the Bahamas.
However, another spokesman later corrected McCurry, saying the flight plans indicated they would take off from Opa-Locka and fly south and then return. “We’re not sure how far, just out and back, no touchdown (in Cuba),” said spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn.
McCurry said U.S. officials had been unaware of the real destination of the planes. “They clearly had detoured” from their flight plan “if they were in this vicinity,” he said.