The US bowed to international pressure last night by arresting an anti-Castro exile wanted over the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner in which 73 people were killed.
Luis Posada Carriles was taken into custody after he had surfaced publicly in the US for the first time, giving an interview to the Miami Herald newspaper. His arrest followed a demonstration yesterday in Havana led by Fidel Castro with thousands demanding his extradition.
In the interview, Mr Posada, 77, conceded that he had entered the US several weeks ago overland from Mexico and had travelled by Greyhound bus to Miami to be among underground supporters of the long-running campaign to oust President Castro.
In this photo made available by the Cuban Government's National Information Agency (AIN), this is an aerial view showing hundreds of thousands of people during a rally in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 17, 2005. The Cubans staged a protest in front of the US Mission demanding that the United States arrest Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, who is sought in Venezuela on charges of helping bomb a civilian airliner in 1976, killing 73 people . (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco/AIN)
American authorities had said that they did not know of his whereabouts. Last night the US Homeland Security Department said it had 48 hours to determine his immigration status.
Mr Posada presented Washington with a dilemma. President George Bush did not want to offend the many Cuban-Americans for whom Mr Posada remains a hero of the anti-Castro movement. However, he is considered a terrorist by Venezuela and Cuba. Failing to arrest him would have been seen as hypocritical.
Mr Posada was on the payroll of the CIA before the 1976 bombing and was once one of Venezuela's most senior intelligence officers. After being captured for his alleged role in downing the aircraft he bribed his way out of jail.
He was imprisoned in Panama for allegedly trying to assassinate President Castro in 2000, but was granted a pardon by the Panamanian president.
"I feel that I've committed many errors, more than most people," he told the Herald. "But I've always believed in rebellion, in the armed struggle. I believe more and more every day that we will triumph against Castro. Victory will be ours."
As for the plane bombing, he said: "Sincerely, I didn't know anything about it."
In Cuba, the surge of protesters along Havana oceanside's Malecon boulevard was reminiscent of the protests spurred by President Castro's successful campaign to bring Elian Gonzalez, the young boy who had floated to Florida on a raft, back to Cuba five years ago. Yesterday, the marchers chanted, "Bush, fascist, capture the terrorist."
Leading off the march in Havana, Mr Castro proclaimed: "Down with terrorism! Down with the lies!"
Speaking to Cuban reporters on Monday, Mr Castro castigated the US over the affair. "This is the empire's answer," he said, "money to foment destabilisation, money for terrorist acts, money for subversion".
Describing his flight from Panama to the US, Mr Posada said he first entered Guatemala and then travelled overland to Mexico. He was smuggled into the US over the Texas border several weeks ago. He said he was almost caught by US customs officials when they boarded his bus bound for Miami, but he managed to persuade them he was a harmless old man who had forgotten to bring his identity papers.
Once in the US, he was initially anxious about being caught, but that had subsided. "Now I hide a lot less. People have recognised me in the market, at the doctor's office, mostly older people, " he said.
© Copyright 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd