April 6, 2006

Cuba fires on suspected people smugglers, one dead

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's coast guard shot and killed one
of three suspected people smugglers aboard a U.S.-registered
speedboat as it approached the island to pick up a group of
Cubans, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The officials confirmed a report in Cuba's state-run Granma
newspaper that the two surviving migrant smugglers, one of whom
was wounded, are American citizens, but did not comment on the
dead man's nationality.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the shooting
was "deeply disturbing" and Washington would be very worried if
the dead man was a U.S. citizen.

"If you have an American citizen who's been shot and
killed, I think that that is a deeply disturbing matter. And we
would be very concerned about that," he said in Washington.

The shooting occurred early on Wednesday when Cuban coast
guard patrol boats intercepted the 40-foot (12-meter) launch
off the south coast of the western province of Pinar del Rio.

The coast guard opened fire when the smugglers refused to
stop their speedboat and rammed a Cuban patrol boat, according
to Granma, the newspaper of Cuba's ruling Communist Party.

One of the wounded men, who lacked documents and has not
been identified, died later in hospital, Granma said.

The other smugglers are Cuban-Americans and had U.S.
passports in the names of Rafael Mesa Farinas and Rosendo
Salgado Castro, it said.

The newspaper said the speedboat was registered in Florida
and owned by John Roberto, a Cuban American known as "Blue
Shark." The paper said the smugglers had planned to ferry the
would-be migrants to Mexico.

Police arrested 39 people, including 12 women and seven
children, on suspicion of trying to leave Cuba illegally,
Granma said. Some were later released.

"This incident shows the aggressiveness and lack of
scruples of these smugglers who put the lives of innocent
people at risk," Col. Jorge Samper, the coast guard's deputy
commander, told Reuters.

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, only
people intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.

To avoid the U.S. Coast Guard, smugglers have shifted their
focus to Mexico and Central America, from where migrants travel
to the U.S.-Mexico border and are usually allowed entry if they
are Cuban.

Economic hardship in Cuba continues to fuel migration. In
fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 2,712 Cubans
at sea, the most since 1994. At least 39 Cubans have drowned
trying to get to the United States in the past year.

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel)