July 8, 2006

Migrant dies as Coast Guard chases speedboat

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Cuban migrant died on Saturday from
possible head injuries after the U.S. Coast Guard chased a
speedboat suspected of smuggling 31 people into the United
States and fired into its engines to stop the vessel, U.S.
officials said.

The Coast Guard said the death of a woman on the boat was
not as a result of the shooting, which occurred after a
high-speed chase about dawn that began 39 miles south of Key
West and ended 4 miles south of Boca Chica in Florida.

Two Coast Guard vessels tried to corner the 36-foot
Carrera, a speedboat with three outboard motors that tried to
ram one of the pursuing vessels more than five times. It had
three suspected people smugglers on board in addition to 31

An investigation will determine whether the smuggling
suspects face charges and the status of the passengers will be
determined later.

The Coast Guard said two rounds were fired into one of the
boat's engines to stop it and that "no migrants received
injuries as a result of the disabling fire."

It said three migrants were found to be in need of medical
attention, including the woman, who had severe bruises to her
face and apparent head injuries. She died as she was being
taken to hospital.

The dead woman might have sustained the head injuries
during the high-speed voyage, Capt. Phil Heyl, the Coast Guard
commander in Key West, said.

"There was no way for these people to brace themselves
against the impact of the boat slamming into the rough seas,"
Heyl said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said it was
investigating the death.

"Smugglers often treat migrants as if they were human
cargo, with blatant disregard for individual life and safety.
This must stop," said R. Alexander Acosta, U.S. Attorney for
the Southern District of Florida.

Hundreds of Cubans leave their communist country every year
by sea, paying smugglers about $8,000 to take them across the
Florida Straits to the United States.

Some smugglers have turned their operations to Mexico and
Central America to avoid interception by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Cuba blames the U.S. government for encouraging illegal
emigration from the island by granting almost automatic
residence to Cubans who make it across to dry land in the
United States. Under Washington's controversial "dry-foot,
wet-foot" policy adopted after a mass exodus of Cubans in 1994,
boat people intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.