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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 19:13 GMT 20:13 UK
Cuba ferry hostages released
Hijacked ferry
The hijackers had threatened to kill passengers

The hijacking of a Cuban ferry with about 50 people on board has ended with the release of all the hostages, the Cuban Government says.

A statement read out on state television said specially-trained Cuban security forces had rescued the hostages and arrested the armed men who hijacked the ferry.

"All of those who were on the boat were safely rescued without a shot or even a scratch," it said.

The arrests began after hostages, taking their cue from officers, began to throw themselves off the boat, disorientating their captors, the statement said.

The hijackers also jumped into the water and were grabbed by the authorities in the port of Mariel, 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of the capital Havana.

Death threats

A United States diplomat and an employee of the ferry service, Omnibus Metropolitanos, had earlier reported the hijacking had ended.

The incident began on Wednesday when eight to 10 men armed with one handgun and knives hijacked the ferry, the Baragua, intending to sail for the United States.

The gang had threatened to kill their captives unless they were given enough fuel to sail for the US.

But the vessel, which usually runs between Havana and suburbs across the bay, was towed back to Cuba after running out of fuel when it was chased into international waters.

Earlier, the government had said: "Force will be used if the hostages' situation becomes critical."

It was the third hijacking in three weeks in Cuba involving armed men demanding to go to America.

Castro at scene

In an unusual step, Cuban President Fidel Castro went to Mariel to oversee negotiations.

The BBC's Stephen Gibbs reporting from the scene said a massive security zone was set up and journalists were kept several kilometres back.

The president's motorcade left after several ambulances were seen speeding from the area.

President Castro was due to appear on television on Friday evening to talk about the affair.

With the hijacking coming only a day after a plane seizure, the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, warned Cubans against using force to try to leave the country.

"People convicted of such crimes are sentenced to long and severe punishments and are declared ineligible for permanent residency in the United States," he said in a statement carried by Cuban TV.

No US diplomat in recent memory has asked the Cuban state media to carry any message.

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