WASHINGTON -- President Clinton plans to punish the Castro regime for Saturday's downing of two unarmed emigre aircraft even though the exiles' lead plane violated Cuban airspace, officials said yesterday.
Punitive steps being considered last night included getting compensation for the victims, enlisting other governments in putting economic pressure on the regime and recalling the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, the officials said.
As a wide Navy and Coast Guard search continued in the Florida Strait for debris from the downed planes, the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session at the request of the United States and was expected to criticize or condemn the Cuban government, perhaps today.
Two U.S. fighter planes are protecting the searchers. Their presence amounts to "an unmistakable projection of force" to prevent Cuban interference, a Clinton administration official said. Little hope was held for survival of the four people aboard the downed planes.
Cuba broke international law when its MiG-29 fired air-to-air missiles without first contacting the emigre pilots, wagging its wings or escorting the aircraft from the area, the White House said. Witnesses aboard a cruise ship said the missiles nearly obliterated one of the emigres' small Cessnas, dimming hopes that anyone might have survived.
"The conduct of the Cubans yesterday afternoon in shooting down these two aircraft was totally unjustified, totally without justification," Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters.
The two U.S. planes were in international airspace when they were shot down, administration officials said.
But the lead aircraft in the three-plane group was already in nTC Cuban airspace, or within 12 miles of Cuba's shoreline, according to U.S. officials. In addition, one of the planes had been warned minutes before by a Cuban air traffic controller not to venture south of the 24th parallel, U.S. officials said. Its pilot replied that he was aware of the danger but would fly in anyway, the officials added.
Even so, an administration official said, "Under international law, there is no justification for shooting down a civilian plane." The red and white Cessna aircraft had been chartered by a Cuban exile group called Brothers to the Rescue. While the group's chief purpose is to assist Cuban refugees, it has been known to fly over Cuba and drop leaflets.
The Federal Aviation Administration has weighed canceling the group's licenses for veering from its prescribed flight paths, officials said.
In a statement yesterday, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said the two Brothers aircraft that were shot down were in Cuban airspace and had received ample warnings.
"Between 10:15 a.m. and 11:27 a.m., three airplanes of the same type also penetrated our air and maritime space. On that occasion a plane from our air force went to the area and the pilots withdrew to the north," the ministry's statement said.
U.S. officials said they had no information on any earlier American flight and said the three BTTR aircraft took off from Opa-Locka airfield in Florida between 1:15 p.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday.
Assessing how to punish Fidel Castro, top officials wanted to avoid undermining the Clinton administration's policy of trying to expand people-to-people contact with Cubans as a way of weakening the Communist regime.
As a result, officials said, Mr. Clinton appeared unlikely to cancel the new long-distance telephone service that began last year -- even though the Cuban government profits from it. Strong arguments were made against curbing humanitarian relief sent by relatives of Cubans, they said.
Military and Coast Guard officials said the search was being conducted in a 330-square mile area centered 18 miles north of Havana. "We have not found anything yet today," Coast Guard Petty Officer Jeff Hall said yesterday.
If the searchers had to go into Cuban territorial waters, "That would be very carefully coordinated between the governments and the military so there would be no surprises and no misunderstanding," said Navy Capt. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for the Atlantic Command. Among the ships and aircraft on the scene are a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane and two Coast Guard helicopters.
The punishment being weighed by the White House was insufficient for the two front-running GOP presidential candidates -- and for emigre groups.
Sen. Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas demanded that President Clinton support tough new legislation that would penalize countries that trade with Cuba.
Patrick J. Buchanan, interviewed yesterday on CNN, said: "I would order the American air force to patrol the Florida Straits and to shoot down any Cuban jet that fired on a civilian aircraft in international waters or in an international air space."
Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, told an angry crowd of more than 100 Cuban exiles chanting "war, war, war" at the Opa-Locka Airport that Mr. Castro feared the nonviolence campaign waged by his organization of exile pilots.
"We call on the people of Cuba to wage a nonviolent civilian disobedience campaign to bring down the Castro regime, and we also call on Cuba's armed forces to never again kill one of their brothers," he said.