In a pre-dawn strike that was stunning in its swiftness after months of impasse, armed federal agents snatched a screaming Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives yesterday morning and reunited him with his father at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The streets of the Little Havana neighborhood erupted in anguished and sometimes violent protest as Elian was whisked into a van, then a plane and, several hours later, the arms of his tearful father. Juan Miguel Gonzalez had not seen his son in the five months since the boy's mother took him aboard a rickety boat carrying Cubans escaping their homeland.
"[Elian] looked very happy, and Juan Miguel was crying," a Justice Department official said, describing a scene in which the father carried his son off the plane, the boy's arms tightly wrapped around him.
The Miami relatives soon trailed Elian to Washington, refusing to give up their claims on the boy.
The warm father-son reunion at Andrews was in marked contrast to the 5: 15 a.m. storming of the Little Havana home of Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle with whom Elian had lived since being rescued off the coast of Florida, a survivor of the journey in which his mother and 10 other passengers drowned.
The raid came after months of frustration for Attorney General Janet Reno, who had traveled to her native Miami to seek a peaceful transfer of the boy and extended several deadlines for Elian's relatives to comply with federal rulings turning custody over to his father.
"Every step of the way, the Miami relatives kept moving the goal post and raising more hurdles," Reno said yesterday morning.
And so she sent armed agents to forcibly enter the white stucco house, startling family members and others inside who were negotiating for a meeting with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. A family friend grabbed a frightened and confused Elian and ran into a bedroom where they cowered in a closet until an agent, in riot gear and pointing an assault weapon, confronted them.
"I ran to the bedroom ... just to try to protect this little boy. Elian was screaming: 'Help me! Help me!'" said an emotional Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who since rescuing Elian has joined the boy's extended Miami family.
To his great-aunt Angela, also in the room, Elian cried out, "Que esta pasando?" "What's happening?"
Special Agent Betty A. Mills carried the crying boy from the home into a white van as some of the protesters around the house began throwing chairs and other objects at the vehicle. Officers kept the crowd back with pepper spray.
As advised by therapists earlier, the agent reportedly whispered to the boy in Spanish as she carried him away, telling him that although he must be scared, this would be better soon and he would see his "papa."
Three minutes after the raid began, the eight agents and Elian were gone, en route to nearby Watson Island, where they boarded a helicopter to Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. There, a doctor examined Elian to make sure he had not been injured.
Elian was then put on a plane for Washington, accompanied by Mills, a psychiatrist and other Immigration and Naturalization Service representatives. They gave Elian some Play-Doh -- which psychologists say is comforting for an anxious child to squeeze -- a toy airplane and refreshments. As further assurance, he was shown a map of where he was going and a watch to mark how long it would take.
Meanwhile, the house he had left became the center of a growing protest of Cuban-Americans, outraged that Elian had been snatched from their midst during Easter weekend -- perhaps to be returned to Cuba. Only about 100 protesters were outside the house when the federal agents arrived. But as word of the seizure spread, the crowd and the indignation grew.
Demonstrators continued to swarm the neighborhood throughout the day as police threw up roadblocks to contain the protest to about 35 blocks.
More than 180 people were arrested as protesters set more than 100 fires, uprooted concrete benches and assaulted police officers.
"This is terrible," said Cristina Valdes, 67, who was among dozens of people venting their anger by banging on a parked van. "I'm ashamed to be an American. Clinton is a coward, coward, coward."
Scores of protesters similarly took to the streets of New York City and Union City, N.J., home to a large number of Cuban-American exiles, to denounce the strong-arm removal of Elian
But in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro has been staging huge rallies calling for the boy's return, citizens wept and cheered that Elian was removed from the family that has been branded "kidnappers."
In Washington, protesters decried the raid and welcomed the arrival from Miami of Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter Marisleysis at Reagan Washington National Airport. The relatives were met in Washington by a supporter, Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, but it was not known whether they would be allowed to see Elian.
Reno said she authorized the raid after negotiations for a more peaceful transfer of the boy failed. But the Miami relatives and their representatives disputed that, saying they had just finalized an agreement to meet with Elian's father even as federal agents were ramming the door of the house.
"It was all a sham. It was a lie. Shame on the attorney general for suggesting that the negotiations had stalled," said Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, an attorney representing the Miami relatives.
Garcia-Pedrosa said the relatives had signed an agreement that the whole family would move into a compound guarded by marshals. Another family attorney, Manny Diaz, said he was on the phone with a mediator when the raid began. "The phone went click," Diaz said. "The marshals were coming in."
Inside the house, and in Washington, negotiations that had begun on Friday were keeping the telephones ringing and the fax machines whirring until early yesterday morning. A number of Miami leaders, including a university president and wealthy Cuban-American power brokers, spent much of the night trying to work out a peaceful transfer of the boy.
Meanwhile, Reno kept President Clinton apprised of developments. At 2: 15 a.m., Clinton agreed that the negotiations should continue as long as progress was being made but that he would support removal by force if necessary.
Within a couple of hours, Reno decided that no agreement was imminent. "Time had run out," she later said.
White House chief of staff John Podesta called the president shortly before 5 a.m. to report that the talks had stalled and that law enforcement agents were preparing to enter the house.
About 45 minutes later, Clinton was told that the boy had been safely removed.
"I am well aware that this has been a difficult time for all the parties involved," Clinton told reporters yesterday morning. "But let's remember, as I said from the outset, the most important thing was to treat this in a lawful manner, according to the established process. This was in the end about a little boy who lost his mother and has not seen his father in more than five months."
Reno, a former prosecutor in Miami who took an intense and personal approach to the case, said Lazaro Gonzalez's family left her with no other course of action.
"Up until the last, we tried every way we could to encourage Lazaro Gonzalez to voluntarily hand over the child to his father," she said.
Reno has been criticized for letting the tug of war over Elian drag on for months. Deadlines for the Miami family to hand over the boy came and went with no action. Family members said they would not turn the boy over until his father arrived from Cuba, but even after Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to the United States on April 6, they refused to let go of the boy. Reno told the Miami relatives to bring the boy to an area airport at 2 p.m. April 13, but that deadline passed with the boy still in Lazaro Gonzalez's house.
As the chaos continued in Miami in the aftermath of Elian's removal, a parallel if less frenzied scene was unfolding in the Washington suburbs.
At Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, reporters and photographers congregated outside the main gate, denied entry to the private reunion inside.
About 50 protesters went to Reagan National Airport to denounce the boy's return to his father. Most expressed particular outrage over the Associated Press photograph of Elian facing the barrel of a federal agent's weapon, an image that demonstrators had enlarged and placed on posters and fliers.
"This boy was being reassured that he's being supported by the good people. Then the good people take him away at gunpoint," said Israel Moya, 39, of Laurel, who moved to the United States from Cuba at age 8. "Now he cannot trust Castro, and he cannot trust the good people."
He said pictures showing Elian laughing with his father must have been the result of drugs that the U.S. government administered to the boy.
Protesters were allowed inside the Reagan National Airport terminal until just before Elian's relatives arrived. Then they were moved outside, where they shouted, "We want justice!"
Outside the main entrance to Andrews Air Force Base, sisters Sarah and Susan Manning of Baltimore held signs supporting Elian's return to his father.
"Miami relatives, you brought this on yourself," said a sign held by Susan Manning, 33, a Johns Hopkins graduate student. "Now leave Elian's real family in peace."
"Reasonable people everywhere are appalled at how this child has been treated by the Miami relatives," said Sarah Manning, 31, a database technician who lives in Charles Village. "Their first reaction after he was taken was to let the media tour the house and milk this for every last drop. The majority of Americans feel this reunion is a good thing."
As the tried to speak to reporters, the sisters were interrupted by hecklers.
"Deluded Communist apologists!" one anti-Castro protester yelled.
"Have you ever lived in an oppressed country before?" screamed another.
Elian, his father, stepmother, Nercy Carmenate Castillo, and his baby half-brother, Hianny, reportedly would stay in guest quarters on the 7,550-acre base for several days before moving to an undetermined location while they await the legal action initiated by the Miami relatives to make its way through the courts.
Lazaro Gonzalez has filed for asylum for Elian to keep him from being returned to Cuba. The great-uncle has appealed a federal court ruling that turned Elian over to his father, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered last week that the boy remain in the United States as the case continues; it did not, however, block Elian from being placed in Juan Miguel Gonzalez's custody. The Atlanta court has scheduled a hearing on Lazaro Gonzalez's appeal for May 11.
Reno asked for peace while the legal proceedings continued in court. "As we all await the outcome of the appellate process, I think it's important for us all to accept Elian's long overdue reunion with his father. It is time to heal wounds that have divided a community. It is time to help this little boy heal from the tragedies that he has experienced," she said.
"Let us give him and his father the space, the calm, the moral support they need to reconnect and reaffirm their bond between father and son."
Sun staff writers Marcia Myers, Tom Bowman and Heather Dewar, and wire services contributed to this article.