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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Rocked as Elian Forcibly Taken Home




WASHINGTON -- Elian Gonzalez was reunited with his father on Saturday after U.S. federal agents, armed with semi-automatic weapons and firing pepper spray, broke down the door of the home of the Cuban boy's Miami relatives and seized the child near a back bedroom closet.


Crying "Help me! help me!" in both English and Spanish, the frightened 6-year-old was hurried from Miami's Little Havana neighborhood in a pre-dawn raid, helicoptered to a waiting government jet and flown to suburban Washington, where he was turned over to the long-waiting arms of his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.


The reunion was warm and emotional, said the father's attorney, Gregory Craig.


It followed five months of anxiety and extremely harsh feelings that have surrounded the case of the little refugee, whose mother drowned as he was set adrift on an inner-tube in the Florida Straits.


The family immediately released photos of a smiling Elian with his father, stepmother and little half-brother, Hianny.


In one shot, Elian - dressed in a blue Batman shirt - beamed as his father held him in front of the camera.


Elian's other relatives held a news conference in Washington on Sunday to criticize the raid. They described a chaotic scene, full of shouting agents, blazing guns, tear-gas canisters shot into their home and hurled insults.


"It happened to a kid who had gone through a lot," said Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian's 21-year-old cousin.


She also said the photos showing a beaming Elian reunited with his father were faked: "That is not Elian. Look how short the hair looks when he was taken out of the house and look how long the hair is in the picture that they show today."


Moving to refute those assertions and calling them absurd, the father's lawyer produced five more photos taken Sunday that portrayed a smiling Elian, eating, playing ball and cuddling with his father. The film was developed by The Associated Press, which vouched for its authenticity.


Elian was handed over to the agents by Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who helped rescue the boy from the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving Day.


"They ripped him from my arms," Dalrymple cried. "This isn't supposed to happen in America."


Federal sources said Elian was told where he was going, and was provided a toy plane and a map so he could follow the jet's route. He also was given a "play pack" containing Play-Doh, which authorities wanted him to squeeze to ease the stress.


As the sun came up on a startled Miami, protest groups roamed through the streets Saturday. Sometimes the crowds were more than 1,000 strong. Rocks and debris were thrown at police officers. Truck tires and American flags were burned as well.


Police in full riot gear tried to control the protesters, and more than 180 arrests were made by late afternoon.


In Cuba, Miami's sporadic street protests were played back in Havana throughout the day on Cuba's state-run television.


The images showed a community group that Cuban President Fidel Castro has painted as "the Mafia in Miami" being beaten by American police and burning the flag of the nation they chose over their homeland.


In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno defended the heavy use of force.


She said she gave the green light for the raid after last-minute negotiations stalled overnight.


Her decision was supported by U.S. President Bill Clinton.


"We had received information that there were guns, perhaps in the crowd, perhaps in the house," Reno said.


"The safety of all involved was paramount. And when law enforcement goes into a situation like that, it must go in prepared for the unexpected."


The U.S. Justice Department said Sunday that negotiators with close ties to Attorney General Reno were in the house when the raid occurred, having tried until the last minutes to broker a deal that would have resulted in a peaceful transfer of Elian to his father.


Civic leaders sympathetic to the Miami family produced what they said was a draft of a six-point proposal to reunite the boy and his father that they said Reno chose to brush aside in authorizing the raid.


But the U.S. Justice Department countered that the details of the plan were continually changing.


The raid drew harsh criticism from several top Republicans, including presidential candidate George W. Bush, who said it produced a "chilling picture" that "defies the values of America and is not an image a freedom-loving nation wants to show the world."


Democratic candidate and U.S. Vice President Al Gore issued a noncommittal statement, saying he would have preferred the matter be resolved "through a family court and with the family coming together."


Congressman Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas, called for congressional hearings into the raid.


"I think both branches, the legislative branch and the judiciary branch, should look into this in depth," DeLay said on NBC television, "because this is a frightening event, that American citizens now can expect that the executive branch, on their own, can decide whether to raid a home."


The last discussions between Reno and the Miami relatives called for Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter, Marisleysis, to bring Elian to a neutral hotel or conference center near Washington, according to senior Justice sources.


But the Miami relatives countered that the meeting would have to take place in the Miami area. The Justice Department turned them down.


It was imperative from the Justice Department's standpoint that Juan Miguel Gonzalez regain formal custody of the child at any meeting.


But the Miami relatives turned down this provision as well.


The Miami family's intermediaries proposed that all family members stay at a neutral location until a federal appeals court case is decided, in late May at the earliest.


Reno gave the go-ahead for Operation Reunion about 4 a.m.


After a brief postponement when the Miami faction asked for more time, she ordered the retrieval to start again.


Well-armed agents arrived abruptly at 5:15 a.m.


According to Marisleysis, agents used a battering ram to knock down the front door.


Law enforcement officials said that eight agents knocked before entering, as they are legally required to do.