MIAMI - The U.S. Coast Guard boarded a 36-foot Cuban boat Wednesday and took 15 people into custody, a day after the government-owned vessel was taken from the island and was chased by Cuban authorities.
Meanwhile, a teenager who survived an attempted hijacking Monday in western Cuba provided new details about that incident, in which three men trying to flee to the United States died.
The two incidents were the first significant boat or plane seizures in Cuba since the April 11 execution of three men convicted of seizing a ferryboat in Havana Bay - a case that helped chill Cuba’s relations with Europe.
The Coast Guard had been tracking the government-owned vessel before boarding it Wednesday in international waters in the Straits of Florida, Coast Guard spokeswoman Danielle DeMarino said.
Cuba’s government said its coast guard chased the vessel into Bahamian waters on Tuesday. The Bahamian government said the vessel re-entered international waters Wednesday.
DeMarino said the Cubans would remain aboard the cutter until immigration officials can interview them, at least until Thursday. None of the Cubans were injured, she said.
Earlier Wednesday, Coast Guard Lt. Tony Russell said the Coast Guard did not believe the boat had been forcibly hijacked. Cuban officials said the boat was owned by GeoCuba, a government-owned geologic exploration and mapping company.
“We see this as a stolen Cuban vessel that has been commandeered as a vehicle in an illegal migrant voyage,” Russell said. Neither he nor DeMarino would say how far the boat was from U.S. waters.
Usually, Cubans who reach U.S. shores are allowed to remain in the country, while those found at sea are generally returned to Cuba.
Meanwhile, a Cuban youth who survived Monday’s attempted hijacking said that three men trying to flee to the United States shot his brother, then killed one another as police closed in on a dock in western Cuba. That incident was followed by the taking of the GeoCuba boat on Tuesday.
Marquier Montan Contreras, 17, said he, his mother and brother had agreed to act as hostages to help the men get past a guard and seize a fishing boat. “My mama was leaving the country,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave my mama alone and I went with her.”
Cuban officials say the hijackers were unable to operate the vessel and that a skipper they had seized to help them managed to jump overboard. Montan said the boat never even left the dock.
“They saw that the thing was going bad. There was a policeman approaching” and they heard a shot, Montan said. “They got nervous then.”
Saying, “This is over now,” one of the men shot his brother and another tried to kill him - but the gun jammed, Montan said. He said the three then killed one another and he fled with his mother and brother.
Montan briefly spoke to reporters at the Cuban hospital where his 10-year-old brother was being treated for non-life-threatening wounds.
The mother of one of those who died said the men had been sentenced to six years in prison for stealing and killing cattle.
Police said they are still investigating details.
Cuban officials blamed both incidents on the Cuban Adjustment Act, the U.S. law that gives Cuban migrants special treatment once they reach U.S. shores. Officials here say that encourages people to risk their lives at sea.
In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States has reminded Cuba that “it has an obligation to resolve hijackings in a manner that’s consistent with international law, and that it needs to conduct law enforcement judicial actions consistent with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.”
He said that “any hijacker who arrives in the United States will be prosecuted with the full force of the U.S. legal system.”