- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

HAVANA — Fugitive army soldiers tried to hijack a plane bound for the United States yesterday and killed a military officer whom they had taken hostage during the failed attempt, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry blamed U.S. policies that the communist government says encourage Cubans to emigrate to the United States and also said it was a result of Washington’s tolerance of violence against Cuba.

The incident began before dawn when the fugitives commandeered a city bus near the airport and forced it to drive inside and onto the tarmac of Terminal 2, which services charter flights between the Cuban capital and the United States. The exact destination of the plane in the United States was not known, but most charter flights out of Terminal 2 fly to Miami.

Army Lt. Col. Victor Ibo Acuna Velazquez was killed aboard the plane, the ministry said.

“Despite being unarmed, he heroically tried to prevent the commission of the terrorist act,” the ministry said.

The other passengers on the commandeered bus were unharmed, and there were no passengers or crew members aboard the plane. The two fugitive soldiers were arrested.

The incident comes amid an ongoing political campaign by Havana accusing the U.S. government of protecting its archenemy, Luis Posada Carriles. Cuba accuses the 79-year-old Cuban militant of involvement in a deadly airline bombing three decades ago and a string of Havana hotel bombings in the late 1990s.

Hundreds of thousands of people marching in Havana on Tuesday to mark May Day protested the recent release from U.S. custody of Mr. Posada.

“The responsibility for these new crimes lies with the highest-ranking authorities of the United States, adding to the long list of terrorist acts that Cuba has been the victim of for nearly half a century,” the ministry said yesterday.

Caridad Carbonel, who has lived in the shadow of Havana’s airport for 34 years, said she was awakened by gunfire and saw a vehicle roll onto the tarmac through a side checkpoint.

“Last night, there was a terrible shootout,” the 68-year-old said, adding that she saw ambulances swarm the area and had heard about the death of a military officer several hours before Cuba’s government confirmed it yesterday evening.

The two soldiers arrested were among three who escaped with automatic rifles from their military base on Sunday after killing a fellow soldier and wounding another. The statement said the third soldier who fled was captured, but it did not say when.

There had been a massive manhunt under way for the three. The Defense Ministry over the weekend distributed wanted circulars around Havana, describing the fugitive soldiers as armed and dangerous and saying they were sought for abandoning their posts. Some circulars were displayed in public places, including post offices.

The men, all from the eastern province of Camaguey, were identified as Leandro Cerezo Sirut and Alain Forbus Lameru, both 19, and Yoan Torres Martinez, 21. It was not clear which two were involved in the attempted hijacking.

Throughout the day yesterday, there were rampant rumors of a shooting at the airport, but the Cuban government and its official media were silent for most of the day.

Several baggage handlers told an Associated Press reporter who visited the airport that police had told them to tell anyone who asked to say that nothing had happened there that morning. Even so, none of them had appeared to have heard or seen the pre-dawn incident.

Later yesterday, all was calm and there was no increased police presence at the airport’s Terminal 2.

The incident was the first hijacking attempt reported in Cuba since the spring of 2003.

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