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Cuba fires on suspected people smugglers

Written by: Staff

HAVANA, Apr 7: Cuba's coast guard shot and killed one of three suspected people smugglers aboard a US-registered speedboat as it approached the island to pick up a group of Cubans.

The US officials yesterday 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.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the shooting was ''deeply disturbing'' and Washington would be very worried if the dead man was a US 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 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 US 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 US 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 US Coast Guard, smugglers have shifted their focus to Mexico and Central America, from where migrants travel to the US-Mexico border and are usually allowed entry if they are Cuban.

Economic hardship in Cuba continues to fuel migration. In fiscal year 2005, the US 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.


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