Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cuba Claims Shootdown Was Legitimate Defense

UNITED NATIONS -- Cuba told the UN General Assembly on Wednesday that it shot down two U.S.-owned planes because repeated violations of its airspace left it no choice but to defend "our dignity and sovereignty."

Presenting his nation's case to the world community, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina blamed the Clinton Administration for failing to prevent Cuban-exile groups from flying illegally over Cuba despite repeated diplomatic protests.

"We actually begged the United States government to do all in its power to prevent these flights, which violated not only our laws but the laws of the United States," Robaina said.

"Nothing was left for us to do to prevent the incident except giving up our dignity and the sovereignty of our country."

In rebuttal remarks, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright accused Cuba of presenting "a smokescreen" to shirk responsibility for "a crime." She claimed the U.S. government had taken steps to prevent illegal overflights in accordance with American law.

But she added: "We cannot be silent when our citizens are murdered and cannot allow the Cuban government which ordered this crime to transfer blame to the victims of it."

The United States claims the unarmed planes were shot down over international waters in violation of international law. The International Civil Aviation Organization was to begin an investigation of the incident Wednesday at the request of the UN Security Council.

In outlining his country's version of events, Robaina said the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, which operated the planes shot down Feb. 24, flew over Havana on Jan. 9 and Jan. 13 and dropped "tens of thousands of fliers with subversive propaganda over the capital."

On Feb. 24, Robaina said, planes from Brothers to the Rescue flew north of Havana and entered Cuban airspace. He said Cuban air traffic controllers sought information from the Miami Air Traffic Control Center but were told "it had no information whatsoever" about the flights.

"In view of this, aircraft of the Cuban air force took off and the pirate airplanes withdrew," he said. Later that afternoon, three other planes approached Cuba and refused warnings to turn back, he added.

"Under these circumstances, two intercepting fighters of the Cuban air force took off, performed the preventive warning pass," Robaina said. "According to the Cuban pilots and air command, two of the pirate planes were at a distance of five to eight miles from our coast with the possibility of repeating the actions of Jan. 9 and 13."

Because of the overflights in January, Robaina said, orders were issued to shoot the planes down. He said Cuba invited U.S. Coast Guard vessels to enter Cuban waters to search for survivors.

"We do not really think that the United States government wished to provoke the Feb. 24 incident and the conflict that might have resulted from these developments," he said. "What we affirm is that the United States did not take the effective measures to timely avoid these events from occurring."

Robaina claimed Brothers to the Rescue was not a humanitarian organization but a terrorist group that plotted to blow up power lines in Havana, sabotage the Cienfuegos oil refinery and assassinate Cuban leaders.

"Would the United States have tolerated provocations of the sort Cuba has to tolerate?" Robaina asked. "Could Cuban civilian aircraft penetrate with impunity the security zones of Andrews or Fort Meade air bases close to Washington, D.C.?"

In Montreal, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena told the International Civil Aviation Organization that the downing constituted "murder in the skies."

He said one plane was downed five nautical miles north of Cuban airspace and the other about 16 miles north of Cuban territorial waters.