Coast Guard Repatriates 28 Cubans

MIAMI – The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Knight Island repatriated 28 Cuban migrants to Bahia de Cubanãs, Cuba, Thursday who were interdicted aboard a go-fast vessel Friday.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft crew from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., located an overloaded go-fast vessel while conducting a law enforcement patrol Friday. With this information the crew of the Cutter Tornado intercepted the go-fast carrying 28 Cuban migrants and two suspected smugglers 16 miles north of Mariel, Cuba. The two suspected smugglers were later transferred to Customs and Border Protection officials in Key West, Fla.

During the past week Coast Guard crews also successfully disrupted seven suspected migrant-smuggling operations, nabbing 11 suspected smugglers.

Since Dec. 6, the Coast Guard has received two reports of failed smuggling operations that have left up to 65 men, women and children either dead or missing at sea.

On Dec. 6 the Coast Guard was notified by family members that up to 40 Cuban migrants had not been heard from since departing Cuba aboard a go-fast migrant-smuggling boat on Nov. 24. None of the Coast Guards aircraft or cutters patrolling the Florida Straits or the waters surrounding Florida during those 12 days reported any sightings that correlated to the report of the missing migrants. An HU-25 Falcon jet, from Coast Guard Air Station Miami searched the Cay Sal Banks, Bahamas, area hoping to locate the migrants aboard the boat or on an island but no sign of the vessel or the migrants was observed. Likewise an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast failed to generate any leads in locating the missing migrants. One relative told the Coast Guard that many of the family members who paid for the passage of the migrants are themselves recent arrivals and were reluctant to call authorities and did not understand they could ask the Coast Guard for help.

On Wednesday the Coast Guard District Seven Command Center in Miami received from the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, a Cuban Border Guard report dated Dec. 24, indicating the Cuban Border Guard detected a go-fast vessel violating their territorial waters near Santa Cruz Del Norte, Cuba, and picking up a group of persons. The Cuban Border Guard states the vessel capsized about one to two miles offshore, in Cuban territorial seas, and that 11 people were rescued, including two children. Cuban Border Guards also stated two adults died in the incident. In an update to that report, the Cuban Border Guard stated that the go-fast vessel had not been recovered and that remnants of debris pertaining to the vessel were located. The update also indicated 10 migrants were intercepted on shore and no migrants were left unaccounted for. The Coast Guard cannot confirm the numbers of people aboard or the number of fatalities as reported by family members to the media because the only direct information the Coast Guard has received thus far has come from the U.S. Interests Section. A Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet from Air Station Miami searched for more than two hours in international waters just in case some of the migrants were still in the water or with the capsized boat. No sign of the vessel or the migrants was observed.

If family members’ reports are accurate, up to 65 people are missing at sea since Nov. 24. Anyone with information about these cases is asked to contact the Coast Guard at 305-415-6800.

“The families and friends of those missing or lost at sea have our deepest sympathies,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, public affairs officer for the Seventh Coast Guard District. “However, as long as migrant smugglers and their criminal organizations enjoy the tacit or direct protection of the local community, and people are content to see the lives of their loved ones needlessly endangered by the reckless, negligent and criminal actions of migrant smugglers, migrant smuggling and the human tragedy associated with it will continue in the Florida Straits.”

With a few days left in 2007 the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted 3,197 Cuban migrants in 2007, compared to 2,293 in 2006.

The Cutter Knight Island is a 110-foot patrol boat homeported in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The Cutter Tornado is a 179-foot patrol boat homeported in Pascagoula, Miss.

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