WASHINGTON -- The relatives of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy at the center of an international custody battle, decided late last night to turn the boy over to his father today at a meeting here, government officials said.
In frantic last-minute negotiations, as the Justice Department prepared to order the transfer tomorrow morning in Florida, representatives of the Miami relatives and Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, agreed to a meeting in the Washington area, the officials said.
Elian will be accompanied by his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who has temporary custody of the child, and Lazaro's 21-year-old daughter, Marisleysis Gonzalez. Until yesterday, the family had sought a meeting with the boy's father, but had demanded that it occur in Florida.
The meeting, if it takes place as planned, would end the lengthy custody battle with a peaceful transfer that Attorney General Janet Reno had struggled to piece together Tuesday night, Justice Department officials expressed satisfaction that the end seemed to be in sight.
Turning Elian over to his father basically settles the issue in the view of immigration officials.
"We've encouraged them to talk and tried to facilitate from the start," one official said. "We're happy that this appears to be an an opportunity for a new beginning."
The first indication that the long dispute might be close to a conclusion came late last night from Miami, where a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation said that representatives of the Miami relatives would meet with Elian's father today.
She said that Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, had helped arrange the meeting. Efforts to reach Torricelli last night were unsuccessful.
An emotional crowd of about 150 protesters remained outside the home of Lazaro Gonzalez until early this morning, cheering and chanting..
"I feel horrible. It's a criminal act to send any boy who has made it to freedom back to Cuba," said Ada Nimo Diaz, 39, an international banker who left Cuba in 1972. "There are enough children suffering in Cuba. I was one of them."
Other protesters in the crowd chanted during the evening, "Elian must stay."
"The Democrats have no backbone," said Rudy Fernandez, 34, who was among the protesters. "They screwed us in the Bay of Pigs, and they're screwing us now." The agreement on the child's transfer came after a hectic day in which Reno had first considered and then canceled plans to visit Miami.
Reno has told aides at the Justice Department for several days that she was convinced that her direct intervention could soothe the fiery passions within the Cuban-American population of Miami, where Reno grew up and where she served for 15 years as the elected local prosecutor.
In recent days, Reno has spoken emotionally and emphatically at news conferences and television interviews about her sympathy for the many Cuban-Americans who vehemently oppose sending Elian back to the homeland ruled by of Fidel Castro, whom Reno has said she unequivocally opposes.
But she has also said that international politics should not block the reunion of father and son, an outcome that she said was correct as a long-established matter of immigration law and family values. Pediatric psychiatrists, she said, have recommended turning over Elian to his father.
Still, the possibility of an angry confrontation over the boy has haunted negotiations between the government and Elian's Florida relatives ever since fishermen plucked him from the Atlantic Ocean off Florida on Thanksgiving after his mother drowned on their ill-fated voyage from Cuba.
The relatives have said they would obey the law, including a court order allowing the government to transfer custody to Elian's father, but they have never agreed to turn the child over to his father, repeatedly asking for further legal review of whether the child should be returned to Cuba.
The issue seemed headed to a showdown when last week, Elian's father arrived in the United States to retrieve his son from the Miami relatives, who were granted temporary custody until federal authorities ordered that the boy be reunited with his father. Gonzalez has told authorities he intends to take his son back to Cuba.
Reno's decision to fly to Miami seemed to add yet another unpredictable element to the international custody case, giving the Miami relatives a slim hope that they might argue their case for keeping the child to the country's highest legal officer.
But Reno has insisted she will not waver in her determination to reunite Elian with his father.
Earlier yesterday, the boy's relatives offered a proposal that was officially ignored by the Justice Department.
In a letter distributed outside the Miami home of Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle with whom Elian has been living, the family said it would be willing to meet Elian's father at any "neutral place in South Florida." The letter added that the session would be followed immediately by a second meeting with the father that would include Elian.
The relatives sought an assurance from the government that Elian would not be forcibly taken from them at the proposed meeting.
Elian's father, who is staying at the home of a Cuban diplomat in a Washington suburb, has said he does not want to meet the Miami relatives, but would fly to Florida if necessary to pick up his son. Afterward, the father has said, the adult members of the Gonzalez family might seek a reconciliation.
At the Justice Department yesterday, two Miami area mayors, Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County and Joseph Carollo of Miami, met with Reno and Doris Meissner, commissioner of the immigration service, and urged the attorney general to arrange a meeting between Elian's father and the relatives. After the meeting, Reno issued a statement saying that she welcomed their suggestions.
She added, "The mayors have asked me to speak with leaders of the Miami community and I have indicated my willingness and desire to do so. We agreed to continue working together to seek an outcome that allows Elian to be reunited with his father in the best way possible for him, his family and for the Miami community as a whole."
Although Juan Miguel Gonzalez has said he does not want to defect to the United States, the House Republican leadership and Cuban-American lawmakers yesterday invited him to a private meeting today in the Capitol.
Sun staff writer Jean Marbella contributed to this article.