Cuban Exile Accused of Airline Bombing Arrested in U.S.

U.S. authorities have arrested a Cuban exile accused by Fidel Castro's government of masterminding a 1976 airliner bombing that killed 73 people. Luis Posada Carriles had been seeking asylum in the United States but is also wanted by Venezuelan authorities, for escaping from jail there 20 years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A Cuban exile accused of involvement in the bombing of a Cuban airliner nearly 30 years ago is in US custody. Luis Posada Carriles was arrested yesterday in Miami just hours after he emerged from hiding. Posada had slipped into the United States in March and, until just before his arrest, had been seeking political asylum here. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has been following the story.

And, Michele, first of all, what are US officials saying about Posada's arrest?

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Well, officials with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they took him into custody yesterday and that they have 48 hours to determine his immigration status. They also said the US generally doesn't remove people to Cuba or to countries believed to be acting on Cuba's behalf, and that statement really throws into question Venezuela's extradition requests. Last week Venezuela's embassy here in Washington notified the State Department that it wanted Posada arrested and extradited to face charges in this airliner bombing. Posada did spend nine years in a Venezuelan jail after the bombing, but escaped from prison.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little bit more about his background.

KELEMEN: Well, he's been denying any involvement in this Cuban airliner bombing, but the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a series of FBI and CIA documents recently about him, and the Cuba expert at this National Security Archives, Peter Kornbluh, says the records show that Posada told the US ahead of time that anti-Castro groups were planning to bomb an airliner. Kornbluh also says the CIA had a very long relationship with Posada that dates back to the 1960s. He even took part in Oliver North's Contra resupply operations after escaping jail in Venezuela. And Cuba also links him to a whole series of hotel bombings in Havana in 1997. Posada has not denied involvement in those. In fact, the reporters who met with him in the Miami area yesterday said he wouldn't even answer questions about it. And he was also linked to a plot to kill Fidel Castro five years ago in Panama.

MONTAGNE: And, Michele, this arrest places the Bush administration in a difficult position. The Cuban exile community sees Posada as a hero because he's been fighting Fidel Castro's regime. Have administration officials given any indication of what's going to happen to him?

KELEMEN: No. In fact, US officials wouldn't even confirm he was in the US until he was arrested yesterday, even though his lawyers applied for political asylum back in mid-April. And Cuban authorities practically every day remind the world that Posada was in south Florida. The Cubans are now welcoming his arrest, but they see this as a test for President Bush, who, in the wake of 9/11, has said that any country that harbors a terrorist is just as guilty. The Cubans have also blasted homeland security for allowing such a well-known figure to sneak into the US in the first place and for taking so long to track him down.

Now Posada himself, before he was arrested, met with some reporters yesterday to deny involvement in this Cuban airliner bombing, but also to say that he didn't want to cause trouble in the US and was willing to leave. And one of his friends who helped him through this whole ordeal told NPR he was actually preparing to leave when US agents picked him up yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: You're welcome, Renee

MONTAGNE: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

This is NPR News.

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