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Archive for Wednesday, August 26, 1998

CUBAN EXILES CHARGED IN PLOT TO KILL CASTRO

August 26, 1998

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While there have been numerous plots and claims of plots to kill Cuba's communist leader since he seized power in 1959, the indictment was believed to be the first such accusation in a court of law.

San Juan, Puerto Rico (ap) -- The U.S. government on Tuesday announced the indictment of seven aging Cuban exiles, including a director of Miami's influential Cuban American National Foundation, on charges of plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro.

The seven accused ``did knowingly and unlawfully conspire, combine and agree together ... to kill, with malice aforethought, Fidel Castro ...,'' the indictment said. It suggests more people could be charged, saying the plotters conspired ``with other persons known and unknown to the grand jury.''

It alleged the defendants planned for four years to kill the 72-year-old Castro outside the United States, in particular during his trip to a Latin American summit on Margarita island off the Venezuelan coast in November 1997.

If convicted, they face up to life in prison, the Justice Department in Washington D.C. said.

At least one of the defendants, Jose Antonio Llama, 67, is a director of the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the most influential lobbying groups in the United States, which Castro has accused for years of plotting to kill him. The foundation publicly advocates political pressure to spur change in Cuba.

The foundation's president, Francisco ``Pepe'' Hernandez, was investigated in the case but not indicted. Lawyers for both men had predicted in Miami last week that they would be charged with such a plot this week. The lawyers said their clients were not guilty, though they admitted that Llama owned a boat used in the alleged plot and Hernandez a sniper rifle.

In Miami, the foundation issued a statement calling the allegations ``politically motivated'' and expressed its confidence that Llama was innocent of the charges.

Tuesday's indictment stems from an ongoing FBI investigation that began when the U.S. Coast Guard got a radio call for help on Oct. 27 from the 46-foot yacht La Esperanza, which was in international waters off Puerto Rico. The yacht is owned by Llama's Florida company, Nautical Sports Inc., which also was indicted Tuesday.

The Coast Guard boarded the boat and became suspicious when the men gave contradictory answers, one saying they were returning to Miami and another that they were going on a fishing trip to St. Lucia, according to an initial complaint.

A search of the boat uncovered two hidden .50 caliber sniper rifles, 70 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition and an array of military-type equipment including night-vision goggles, radios and Global Positioning Units, customs spokeswoman Awilda Pereira said.

When the weapons were found, one of the men, Angel Manuel Alfonso, 58, blurted out that he alone had smuggled the weapons aboard because he planned to kill Castro on Isla Margarita, according to the original complaint.

Alfonso was indicted Tuesday along with the three other men on the boat -- Angel Hernandez Rojo, 65, Juan Bautista Marquez, 62, and Francisco Secundino Cordova, 51.

Also indicted Tuesday were Jose Rodriguez, 59, and Alfredo Domingo Otero, 68.

Since February, Assistant U.S. Attorney Miguel Pereira has been presenting evidence to the grand jury in a bid to win conspiracy charges. Previously, a judge had turned him down and, until Tuesday, the only charges in the case were minor ones of smuggling weapons and giving false information about them.

The Cuban American National Foundation is one of the best organized and most powerful lobbies in the nation. Its chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, who died last November, had White House access to presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Mas was seen as the man principally responsible for the hard-line U.S. policies toward Cuba. With his ability to raise campaign funds, he was able to maintain a formidable influence over members of Congress.

Castro has been a target of murder plots in the past.

In the mid-1970's, a Senate committee documented eight instances in which U.S. agencies attempted to assassinate Castro. Castro himself has said the figure is closer to 25.

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