WASHINGTON - Justice Department officials are preparing a letter to the relatives of Elian Gonzalez ordering them to hand over the boy to authorities tomorrow morn- ing at an airport north of Miami, government officials said last night. The order to hand over the boy was contained in a letter being written by Justice Department officials, who plan to order Elian's relatives to bring the child to the general aviation terminal at Opa-Locka Airfield, the officials said.
Elian would then be flown immediately to, a reunion with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, although the precise location of the arrival has not yet been decided. The letter, is likely to be sent to the relatives today, the officials said.
An emotional crowd of about 150 protesters remained outside the home of Lazaro Gonazalez in Miami late last night as they received word of the plans for the transfer.
"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 shouted down the announcement, chanting, "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." Representatives of the Miami family announced that Lazaro Gonzaiez, Elian's great-uncle, would take the child to Washington today. If Elian wanted to stay with his father, the representatives said, he would be allowed to do so; otherwise, he would come back to Miami.
"I don't, think that we've reached the end," said Diaz, the Cuban-American international banker. "I think Juan Miguel is still sorting this out and maybe everything will work out.
"We still have hope. We have faith in God," said Rudy Fernandez's wife, Martha.
While the officials said the time and place of the transfer were unlikely to change, they cautioned that the specifics were contained in a final draft of the letter, which could be altered by senior officials before Reno gives her approval.
Aides to Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday that she had canceled plans to fly to Miami today to meet with Cuban-American leaders and relatives of the boy in what would have been an attempt to persuade Elian's family to peacefully surrender the 6-year-old Cuban boy to authorities.
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 Eliart'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, D.C., 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 Tuesday invited him to a private meeting today in the Capitol.
The lawmakers said in a letter to Elian's father that they wanted him "to be sure that you are aware of all the options available to you as you make your decision."
Sun staff writer Jean Marbella contributed to this article.