Six Cubans were sentenced Wednesday to at least 20 years in prison for hijacking an airliner from Cuba (search) to Florida.

The hijacking in March 2003 was the first in a series of air and sea hijackings that raised tensions between the United States and Cuba.

The six men were accused of using five knives and a cockpit ax to commandeer the Cuban airliner during a domestic flight. The DC-3 (searchwith 37 people aboard landed in Key West (searchwith a U.S. fighter escort.

The men insisted it was a flight to freedom, with secret inside help from the co-pilot. But the jury rejected the claim in December.

The plot's leader and his brother were sentenced to 24 years in prison by a judge who accused them of blatant perjury at their trial. The four other hijackers received 20-year terms.

Prosecutors had asked for life sentences because the hijacking endangered the other people aboard.

The men's attorneys promised appeals. Prosecutors had no comment leaving court.

U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King said all six defendants "took an active role in the seizure of the aircraft by force, threat and intimidation."

The men face deportation when they finish their sentences.

Fifteen people besides the hijackers chose to stay in the United States, including one crew member, a flight attendant.

About two weeks after the incident, a lone hijacker forced another Cuban airliner to land in Key West. He is serving a 20-year term.

Also last spring, three men took control of a Cuban ferry, but they failed to reach the United States and were executed by a Cuban firing squad.

The Cuban government accuses the United States of having a lax attitude toward hijackers who reach its shores. U.S. immigration policy allows most Cubans who reach the United States to stay.