- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

MIAMI (AP) — The Coast Guard searched the Florida Straits yesterday after three Cubans rescued at sea said they had been aboard a speedboat that sank with 31 others aboard.

Coast Guard crews located a capsized boat matching the Cubans’ description about 16 miles from where the three were picked up, but they didn’t find any bodies.

The three were rescued Sunday by a merchant ship about 30 miles north of Matanzas, Cuba, and taken back to an unspecified Cuban port. They told officials they had been on a 28-foot speedboat that sank.

The Cuban government notified the U.S. Coast Guard, which began searching with ships and helicopters late Sunday.

The Coast Guard was still trying to contact the survivors to get more details, spokesman Luis Diaz said.

If the report is accurate and the others died, it would be the deadliest known migrant boat trip from Cuba to Florida in recent years, he said.

No Cuban-Americans had come forward yesterday to report that they were expecting relatives to make the trip, Coast Guard officials said.

U.S. officials don’t know where the boat was headed, but “34 people in one boat is usually an indication that they were trying to enter the United States illegally,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Doss said.

A speedboat that size shouldn’t have been carrying more than 10 persons, he said.

Cuba sent a boat and an aircraft to help with the search, and a British navy ship that was in the area joined the effort for a while yesterday, Coast Guard officials said.

Thousands of people from Cuba and other Caribbean nations try to reach the United States illegally by boat each year. U.S. officials say they don’t know how many die trying.

Cubans who reach U.S. soil generally are allowed to stay under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, but those caught at sea are usually returned home. Many have tried to reach the United States aboard Florida-based speedboats run by smugglers hired illicitly by U.S. relatives.

The deadliest immigrant trip on Coast Guard record happened three years ago when more than 20 persons were believed to have died trying to reach Florida on a 24-foot boat, Mr. Diaz said.

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