By MARIA A. MORALES
Herald Staff Writer
Three Cuban men hijacked a plane Friday in a suburb of Havana, then survived along with the pilot when the aircraft was ditched 30 miles southwest of Sanibel Island off Florida's west coast, U.S. Customs said.
The four men were rescued by a Russian freighter shortly before 10 a.m. and transferred to a Coast Guard cutter. One man with a broken nose was brought late Friday to a Coast Guard station in Fort Myers Beach for medical treatment, said Petty Officer Jeff Hall, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami.
U.S. authorities said they didn't know why the men hijacked the plane or whether they wanted asylum in this country.
The plane's pilot, who was held at knifepoint and told to fly north, asked to be returned to Havana, Hall added.
Asylum officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service interviewed the others to determine their status, said Bill Strassberger, INS spokesman in Washington.
Depending on whether there's credible fear of persecution, some of the Cubans could either be resettled in a third country or returned to Cuba, Strassberger said. A hijacker could also face criminal prosecution in the United States or be returned to Cuba for prosecution, he added.
``It's hard to speculate at this time exactly what will happen,'' Strassberger said. ``We're waiting for more information.''
Using a knife to threaten the pilot, the three men hijacked the white high-wing Polish Wilga aircraft near Guanabacoa, Cuba, shortly before 10 a.m., the Coast Guard said. The six-seat aircraft normally is used as a platform for parachute jumpers.
The passengers said they flew out of Guanabo Beach, where they conducted an airdrop of political pamphlets protesting the Feb. 24 shootdown by Cuban MiGs of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft, U.S. Customs said in a statement.
Cuban MiG fighters downed two unarmed Cessnas belonging to Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue in February, prompting a flurry of new U.S. sanctions against Havana. Four of the group's Cuban-American volunteers were killed in the incident.
According to the Coast Guard, an hour after the airdrop, the aircraft was spotted circling the 565-foot Russian freighter Irbensky Proliv, some 50 miles west of Naples.
The plane crashed into the sea one mile behind the Russian ship, and the four passengers swam to a motorized lifeboat dispatched by the freighter.
On a full tank of fuel, the plane's normal range is 317 miles, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft. Cuba is about 200 miles from where the plane crashed, Coast Guard Petty Officer Marc Luistrao said.
The Cuban government condemned the ``act of air piracy'' late Friday and asked for the return of the Cubans on the hijacked plane.
``It's aerial piracy, and therefore, we consider that the United States should take all measures to immediately return those pirates and to honor our successful migratory accords,'' said Rafael Dausa, spokesman for the Cuban Foreign Relations Committee.
Dausa added that the plane was used to transport tourists between the beaches of Playas del Este and Varadero, east of Havana. He added that he had no idea why the plane was in Guanabacoa when it was hijacked.
The hijacking is the second incident in less than a week involving Cubans coming to the United States.
On Sunday, 31 travelers set out to South Florida, but their boat capsized en route. A woman and a toddler drowned in the voyage. Both were buried in Miami this week.
Passengers on the boat said two other men left on a life raft. They have not been found.
Eight were granted humanitarian visas to attend their relatives' funerals and receive medical treatment. Sixteen will be sent back to Cuba, in accordance with a Washington-Havana immigration accord. Three will be sent to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, from where they will be resettled in third countries.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.