Tear-gas fired at protesters as armed agents grab Cuban boy in pre-dawn raid on relatives' home

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

CUBAN boy Elian Gonzalez was yesterday reunited with his father outside Washington after being plucked from the arms of his Miami relatives in a pre-dawn raid.

The reunion at the Andrews Air Force Base nearly five months after fishermen found six-year-old Elian in the Florida Straits clinging to a tyre's inner-tube was kept private at the wishes of Juan Miguel Gonzalez, angry at the public manipulation of his son.

Justice Department officials said Elian wrapped his arms around his father and looked happy.

'He [Elian] looked very happy and Juan Miguel was crying,' a Justice Department official said.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said Elian was told by agents on the way to the father-son reunion that he need not be scared.

'The conversation goes along the lines of: 'This may seem very scary right now, but it will soon be better. We're taking you to see your papa . . . Please don't be frightened',' she said.

'The child has been very calm, has not been anxious, has not been thrashing, has not been crying.' Elian was happy and very affectionate toward his father, and played with his baby half-brother, CNN cited a witness to the reunion as saying.

Father and son were expected to spend two days at the air base before moving to a more relaxed location to begin what psychologists and health officials said could be a long and complex re-adjustment.

A distraught Elian was carried screaming 'Que pasa?' (What is happening?) from the home of his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, by a Spanish-speaking female immigration officer after eight armed border patrol officers burst into the Miami home.

Protesters were kept at bay with pepper spray. No serious injuries were reported.

Hailing the raid as a triumph for the rule of law, US President Bill Clinton said it all came down to a 'boy who had lost his mother and not seen his father in five months'.

'When all efforts failed, there was no option . . . it was the right thing to do,' he said.

Attorney-General Janet Reno ordered the Immigration and Naturalisation Service raid at about 3am when last-ditch negotiations failed, after the Miami relatives refused to drop their demand that, if Elian was to be handed over to his father, it had to be in that Florida city, a hot-bed of Cuban President Fidel Castro's opponents.

On the communist island, state radio triumphantly broadcast news of the raid.

Elian's paternal grandfather, Juan Gonzalez Hernandez, said he felt very happy.

Hours after the raid, hundreds of Cuban-Americans had gathered at the Miami house, some burning American flags.

Others set fire to tyres and cardboard. Some blocked traffic, others a highway entry ramp.

Police in riot gear ringed the Little Havana district, guarding key junctions.