MIAMI – The number of Haitians fleeing the deadly uprising in their homeland has escalated, with the Coast Guard (search) saying it has intercepted 546 people at sea over the past three to four days, but officials said the increase doesn't signal a mass exodus.
The Haitians were picked up within 50 miles of their country's shore in about a dozen small boats, Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said, bringing the total number of immigrants intercepted this month to 694. They've been brought onto Coast Guard cutters to receive food and water, Diaz said.
"I don't consider that an exodus," Diaz said. He said during a tumultuous period in Haiti during the early 1990s the Coast Guard would sometimes encounter 2,000 to 3,000 migrants in a single day.
Federal officials would not disclose if the immigrants were being returned to Haiti (search). On Wednesday, President Bush repeated the government's policy to turn back any Haitian migrant trying to reach U.S. shores.
Many Haitian-Americans and immigrant advocates fear the bloodletting in Haiti will lead to another mass exodus to Florida.
"The numbers at this point aren't alarming, but given the current political crisis in Haiti, I think it's reasonable to expect greater numbers in the coming days and weeks," said Cheryl Little, head of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (search).
Authorities on Thursday were interviewing nearly two dozen Haitians on a ship the Coast Guard intercepted off the Florida coast, trying to determine whether the vessel was hijacked and if the immigrants should be returned home.
The freighter, carrying 21 Haitians and seven Filipino crew members, was stopped about seven miles off Miami Beach (search) on Wednesday. Officials would not say if the Haitians had requested asylum.
Three shotguns and a handgun were turned over to U.S. officials before they boarded the 200-foot vessel without resistance.
Larry Acheson, president of TowBoat/US Fort Lauderdale, said he overheard a message from the freighter's captain Wednesday saying he was being held hostage by a couple of people holding shotguns.
If evidence shows the Haitians hijacked the ship, they could be brought ashore and arrested on federal charges.
"There are a lot of questions. We just don't have answers," Diaz said.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday referred to the case as a hijacking.
"They should be sent back to Haiti. They hijacked a boat, a large vessel, and unless they have a well-founded fear of persecution that is specific and meets the criteria of our laws, they should be sent back," he said.
The freighter's last port of call was Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city and the place where rebels began an uprising Feb. 5.
A dozen leaders of Miami's Haitian-American community, including state lawmakers, held a news conference Thursday demanding that President Bush allow Haitians temporary protective status until the situation in their Caribbean nation stabilizes. On Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus made the same request.
"You cannot send people to a country that's dysfunctional," state Rep. Phillip Brutus said Thursday. "If you send refugees right now, the [Haitian] government will not be able to receive them, process them or resettle them, because the government is trying to survive on its own.
"It is unfair, it's almost immoral, to be deporting people right now to Haiti," said Brutus, the first Haitian-American state representative in Florida.
Under Haiti's military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994, more than 65,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard. Most were sent home.