HAVANA – U.S. officials on Monday repatriated 12 Cubans who were intercepted at sea after allegedly hijacking a government boat and taking three Cuban security guards hostage.
American officials said they decided to return the Cubans home after receiving assurances they alleged hijackers wouldn't be executed. The Cuban government praised the move, calling it "a valuable contribution" in the fight against illegal migration.
The three abducted security guards were also returned to Cuba.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker (search) said American authorities determined the Cubans were ineligible for amnesty because they had committed acts of violence in Cuba as well as against Coast Guard personnel who boarded the boat Wednesday.
The U.S. Coast Guard stopped the boat in international waters in the Straits of Florida (search) on Wednesday. The Cuban government said its coast guard chased the 36-foot vessel into Bahamian waters Tuesday after it was taken from the communist-run island.
A Coast Guard cutter brought the group to Bahia de Cabanas (search), Cuba, around 10 a.m., Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said. He had no further details.
Their return home raised humanitarian concerns, because Cuba executed three men in April for hijacking a ferry in a bid to reach the United States. Havana said the executions, by a firing squad, were necessary to halt a brewing migration crisis.
Reeker said the United States took into account the lack of due process in the April case.
U.S. officials agreed to the repatriation after Havana promised those who stole the boat would be serve no longer than 10 years in prison, the Cuban government said in a statement read on state-run television early Monday afternoon.
Some Cuban-American leaders were enraged by the U.S. decision.
"Unfortunately, what the U.S. government has done has entered into complicity with the Castro regime," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful lobbying group in Miami.
The three Cuban-American congress members from South Florida, U.S. Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also criticized the move.
"To return individuals to Cuba is to hand their fate to the criminal, who is Castro," Ros-Lehtinen
After Cuba went on the air with its statement, a government announcer read a statement written by U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason, warning Cubans against hijacking planes or boats to emigrate illegally to the United States.
"Hijackings of boats and aircraft are extremely serious violations of international law and of United States law," said an English version of the statement, provided by the U.S. mission here.
He said any "any hijacked conveyance bound for the United States" would be stopped, and that anyone who hijacks a vessel and reaches U.S. shores "will be prosecuted with the full force of the U.S. legal system."
Any Cuban hijacker convicted in the United States will be "rendered permanently ineligible for lawful permanent residence in the United States," Cason's statement added.
A similar written statement by Cason was read on state television earlier this year.
Cuba said the boat -- owned by Geocuba, a government company that does geological exploration and mapping -- was taken out of Boca de Nuevitas, about 340 miles southeast of Havana.
Under U.S. policy, most Cuban migrants intercepted at sea are repatriated and those who reach land are generally allowed to stay and apply for American residency after a year.