By GEORGE GEDDA
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, July 31, 1996 7:47 pm EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- On the day that two Miami-based private planes were shot down north of Cuba last February, Cuban MiGs pursued a third plane to within three minutes of U.S. territory without triggering a response from U.S. jet fighters, a Cuban-American pilot said Wednesday.
The pilot of the third plane was Jose Basulto, who told a news conference the lack of response was a violation of the normal operating procedures governing the appearance of unanticipated aircraft heading toward Florida.
But a Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Joe March, disputed Basulto's allegations. He said the Cuban MiGs were ``considerably more'' than three minutes from U.S. territory. Beyond that, U.S. jet fighters at Homestead Air Force Base, alerted to the approaching MiGs, were on the runway and kept their engines running until the MiGs aborted the mission, March said.
Basulto is head of Brothers to the Rescue, a group that became known for rescuing fleeing Cubans at sea but has become more politically oriented.
His contention that normal procedures were not followed was supported in testimony heard by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. group that investigated the incident.
Jeffrey Houlihan, a Customs radar operator at March Air Force Base in California, told the ICAO that he made an emergency call to the Southeast Air Defense Sector at Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base. He was told, ``We're handling it. Don't worry.''
But, he said, no interceptors were launched.
``The United States military had told me specifically that anything that appears in that area heading toward the U.S., they're going to launch on immediately,'' he testified, according to a transcript made available by Basulto.
But March said the defensive measures at Homestead were entirely consistent with established procedures.
Basulto said that before the Cuban MiGs reversed course, they had come to within 30 miles, or about three minutes, of the southernmost point of the Florida Keys. They were 10 minutes from a nuclear power plant at Turkey Point and 13 minutes from Miami, he said.
He said U.S. radar detected two Cuban MiGs departing from their base at 3 p.m. heading north toward the Brothers to the Rescue planes. The first aircraft was destroyed at 3:21 p.m. and the second at 3:28 p.m. Cuba maintains the flights were within Cuban air space at the time but the United States, backed by the ICAO, contends they were over international waters.
Basulto said U.S. aircraft, aware of the ``potentially lethal situation,'' should have taken action to defend the Cessnas.
He said the flights were on a ``humanitarian mission'' but a Brothers to the Rescue flight a month earlier, in a challenge to the regime, had dropped half a million leaflets containing the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Basulto said the leaflets were dropped from international air space and were carried to Havana by the wind.
That incident triggered a warning from Cuban authorities that any unauthorized plane or boat that enters Cuban territory would be destroyed.
Basulto said that 53 minutes elapsed from the time that Cuban MiGs were detected by U.S. radar stations as heading north, to the moment when the Cuban MiGs aborted their mission.
``No communication attempt was made by the U.S. during this time to alert Brothers to the Rescue aircraft,'' he said. ``These facts raise questions. Mainly, why was normal operating procedure not followed and national security jeopardized, which resulted in the death of American citizens.''
All four persons aboard the two downed planes -- three U.S. citizens and a U.S. resident -- were killed.
© Copyright 1996 The Associated Press