HAVANA | Reuters | A French tourist who jumped overboard triggered the release of 40 hostages from a Cuban ferry that was hijacked by armed men trying to reach the United States, Cuban President Fidel Castro said early yesterday.
Sonia Arbib, a Paris restaurant worker, jumped into the water in the port of Mariel, distracting the only hijacker armed with a gun who was then tackled by another hostage and pushed overboard.
The remaining hostages jumped overboard, and Cuban soldiers came aboard to take control of the small boat, ending a 38-hour high-seas hijacking, Cuban television images showed.
“I thought the hijackers were going to start killing people. They were nervous. The moment arrived to act,” Arbib told Cuban television. Another French woman, one of four foreign tourists on the hijacked vessel, followed Arbib into the water, sparking the end of the crisis.
Castro, whose government had threatened to use force to free the hostages, praised the French woman’s bravery in a five-hour television show dedicated to two hijackings in Cuba this week by Cubans seeking to leave his one-party socialist state.
“This young girl has a lot of merit, She decided to dive overboard,” he said.
The ferry, which runs between Havana and suburbs across the bay, was commandeered early on Wednesday by a group of men planning to sail for the United States, 140 kilometers to the north. One man had a handgun and the others were armed with knives.
But the ferry ran out of fuel in international waters 45 kilometers offshore and drifted in high swells that threatened to capsize the flat-bottomed boat.
The ferry was towed on Thursday to Mariel, 60 kilometers west of Havana.
Castro also recounted negotiations with the hijacker of a Cuban airliner that was forced to fly to Key West, Florida, on Tuesday with 32 people aboard.
Adelmis Wilson Gonzalez, who used fake grenades to commandeer the plane, has been charged with air piracy in the case and was denied bond on Thursday.
On March 19, six Cubans hijacked a Douglas DC-3 at knifepoint and forced the pilot to fly to Key West with 37 people aboard.
Fidel Castro blames the United States for the recent spate of hijackings by encouraging illegal emigration with a policy that grants Cubans residency if they make it across the Florida Straits and United State’s refusal to return hijackers for trial in Cuba.
“This wave of hijackings is provoked by the tolerance of the United States,” he said.