February 26, 1996 in Nation/World

Cuba Violated International Law In Downing Planes, U.S. Charges Whether Or Not Planes Were In Cuba Airspace Called Irrelevant

Washington Post

The United States accused Cuba Sunday of a “blatant violation of international law” in Saturday’s shootdown of two civilian aircraft off its northern coast, and President Clinton Sunday night was considering a range of punitive steps to take against Havana.

U.S. rescue aircraft and ships were continuing a search for the four people aboard the planes, but a Coast Guard spokesman acknowledged prospects were dim for finding survivors.

Passengers aboard a cruise ship and two men aboard a fishing boat told the Coast Guard they saw the planes obliterated in fiery explosions. “Their stories … don’t leave a lot of room for hope,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Woodring.

President Fidel Castro’s government was unapologetic. A Foreign Ministry statement said the Cuban exiles who chartered the single-engine Cessna 337s were “pirates” who had been warned by air controllers of “the risk they were putting themselves in by penetrating” Cuban airspace and were justifiably shot down when they did it anyway.

The statement also said the planes were shot down between five and eight miles from the Cuban coast, or well within the 12-mile territorial limit of Cuban airspace.

In Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the Cuban explanations “neither plausible nor acceptable.”

Senior administration officials said intelligence reports show that the two planes - chartered by the Miami-based exile group Brothers to the Rescue - were near but still outside Cuban airspace when they were blown from the sky by air-to-air missiles fired from a MiG-29 fighter jet. One was downed five miles north of the 12-mile limit, and the second 16 miles outside it, according to the American account.

But the officials said whether the planes were in or out of Cuban space was beside the point. International law prohibits firing on civilian planes anywhere except in self-defense.

At the request of the Clinton administration, the U.N. Security Council Sunday night had an emergency session at which the United States was scheduled to brief other nations about what it knew about the incident.

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