PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am

IT could prove the one sticking point in an otherwise seamless operation - the photograph of a gun-wielding border patrol guard approaching a terrified Elian Gonazalez in the arms of the fisherman who saved him.

Justice Department officials breathed sighs of relief at the apparently successful end to an operation that has plagued them for weeks - apart from that one photograph. It is an image that is sure to burn itself into the national consciousness.

'Something like that was never supposed to happen,' one department official said. 'It is too early yet to say quite how it happened. It may well be that the gun was actually pointing slightly away from Elian and considerable restraint was being used.' The Gonzalez house had been wired for days by national television networks, but the image was captured by an Associated Press photographer who had spent weeks in close contact with the family.