Agents Snatch Elian From Miami Relatives
By Margarita Martin-Hidalgo
MIAMI (Reuters) - Armed U.S. agents stormed the home of the Miami relatives of Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez on Saturday and snatched the crying 6-year-old boy in a stunning predawn raid aimed at reuniting Elian with his father.
Agents battered down the door and charged into the home of the relatives who defied government orders to give up custody of the boy. They then whisked Elian away in a white van, setting off chaos in the streets outside the house where Cuban American protesters have been keeping vigil.
An armed and helmeted agent grabbed the boy from the arms of Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who rescued Elian from the Atlantic Ocean five months ago, as the two huddled in a closet.
Other armed agents held the Miami relatives at bay, witnesses said.
Pepper spray and tear gas were released outside the home, choking protesters, witnesses said.
``They're animals,'' a weeping Marisleysis Gonzalez, the boy's cousin, shouted to protesters after the raid.
The U.S. agents took the boy at about 5:15 a.m. EDT, using surprise and the cover of darkness to end a long and bitter standoff between the boy's Miami relatives, who have said the motherless child should not have to grow up under communism in Cuba, and the U.S. government, which has insisted he should be reunited with his father.
Elian has been living in the Little Havana home of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez since last November when he survived the sinking of a migrant smuggling boat in which his mother and 10 others died.
His rescue touched off a ferocious international custody fight with Cold War overtones, pitting the Florida relatives, backed by hard-line anti-communist Cuban exiles, against Elian's father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, supported by Cuban President Fidel Castro.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a brief statement early Saturday saying the boy had been safely removed from the home and was on his way to a reunion with his father. The boy was being flown to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. It was unclear where the reunion would take place.
U.S. authorities tried late Friday to broker a last-minute deal for the Miami relatives to turn over the boy peacefully to his father, who traveled to the United States more than two weeks ago to reclaim his son.
Only about four dozen Cuban American protesters were keeping vigil outside the home when authorities launched the lightning raid. The demonstrators threw chairs and other objects at the van carrying Elian away and wept openly in the streets.
Miami police cordoned off the neighborhood to keep the crowd under control. As news spread through Miami and people spilled onto the streets, police in riot gear took up positions at intersections.
It was shortly after 5 a.m. EDT when three white vans moved quickly through the cramped streets of Little Havana, each appearing to contain a half dozen or more agents, witnesses said.
As the vans neared the house, protesters yelled: ``They're coming. They're coming to pick up the kid.''
Agents yelled ``Bingo, Bingo'' as they left the house with Elian, the boy held tightly in the arms of a female agent. Agents wearing helmets with eye shields yelled at the crowd: ''Stay behind the barricades.''
``This is a disgrace,'' said Leo Acosta, 23. ``The American government is going to look like a joke to the rest of the world.''
Dalrymple said an agent, heavily armed and wearing a riot helmet and goggles, snatched the boy from his arms as the two hid in a closet.
``The whole world is watching,'' one weeping protester said.
U.S. authorities spent weeks trying to arrange a peaceful transfer of Elian from Lazaro Gonzalez to his father but were thwarted at every turn.
This week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Elian would have to stay in the United States pending the outcome of an appeal filed by the Miami relatives to a Miami federal court decision backing a U.S. government decision to return the boy to his father.
Late Thursday, President Clinton said the ruling removed the last remaining objection to the reunion of father and son. But the Miami relatives still insisted the boy would not be handed over without conditions.
The predawn seizure stunned Cuban Americans who had been demonstrating for weeks outside the home, vowing they would not allow U.S. agents to take the boy. Witnesses said some of the small crowd of protesters tried to form a ``human chain'' to prevent the seizure but were rebuffed by tear gas, pepper spray and armed law enforcement officers who kept them behind police barricades.
``They said they were going to do this in a sensitive way. What does this do to this little boy? What have they done to this boy?'' said Dalrymple. ``He lost his mother, and now this.''
Miami's Cuban American Mayor Joe Carollo said. ``This was not a military camp, this was not a military bunker. This is a plain home of decent, hard-working people. There was no need for this.''