Gunboats Fire on Vessel Fleeing Cuba : Refugees: Officials say passengers may have hijacked freighter from Mariel. Coast Guard intervenes after 4-hour attack, escorts 59 to U.S.

From Associated Press

Cuban gunboats fired for more than four hours Saturday on a Cuban freighter loaded with Florida-bound refugees who reportedly hijacked the vessel. Seven people were injured, one critically.

Four of the wounded, including the ship's captain, were taken by Coast Guard helicopters to Key West Memorial Hospital. Three people who were hurt scrambling for cover during the shooting were treated on the ship, Coast Guard officials said.

The freighter was hijacked by the people aboard, WTVJ-TV reported Saturday night, and a Coast Guard official said authorities believe a hijacking may have occurred.

"There may be something to that effect," Coast Guard Petty Officer Tim Keene said from Key West. "We're not sure at this time."

Passengers said three gunboats chased and tried to stop the 125-foot freighter Rene Bedia Morales soon after it left the Port of Mariel on Cuba's northern coast. They said the gunboats continued to fire even after passengers showed them that children were aboard.

"They kept shooting at us, we showed them the children, they still kept shooting," Larisa Cuesta, a stepdaughter of one of the boat's officers, told radio station WCMQ in Miami. "At one point they threw ropes to try to drag us in. We cut the rope to get loose again."

The shooting continued for more than four hours, passengers said, moving from Cuban to international waters.

The ship's captain, who was shot in the neck, was in critical condition. One of the other three wounded was released from the hospital; the other two were in stable condition.

Late Saturday, the Coast Guard brought 59 people ashore, Keene said. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was processing them at the Coast Guard base before turning them over to the Cuban Transit Center in Key West, he said.

A ham operator in Panama had received a Mayday call early Saturday when the ship was about 15 miles off the coast of Cuba. The operator relayed the call to the U.S. Coast Guard, which dispatched a Falcon jet, a cutter and two helicopters.

The jet located the boat about 67 miles southwest of Key West in international waters. Passengers said the jet's appearance chased the gunboats away.

Jose Ponce, a spokesman for the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, which represents the Cuban government, said Saturday that he had heard nothing about the attack.

Ninoska Perez of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based exile group, said other refugees have been harassed at sea recently while trying to escape Cuba. "The Cuban government covers it up," she said.

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