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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Elian free to go home
Elian arriving at a church service on Tuesday
Elian: Relatives are seeking rehearing of asylum case
Shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez is free to go back to Cuba after the US Supreme Court refused to block his return.

The six-year-old boy, who has spent the last seven months in the US, could leave for Cuba in the next few hours.

Legal sources said Elian's father had a private plane at his disposal ready to leave for Cuba, and was likely to take off within an hour of the court deadline passing at 1600 EDT (2000 GMT).

Federal marshalls were ready to accompany Elian and his family to Washington's Dulles Airport and provide any assistance required, said a US Justice Department spokeswoman.

Elian's father
Elian's father has made preparations to return to Cuba

The preparations come as Elian's Miami relatives, who looked after him following the shipwreck last November which killed his mother, made a last-ditch legal attempt to keep him from returning to Cuba.

They were seeking permission from the Supreme Court for a rehearing of Elian's asylum case, arguing that the Immigration and Naturalisation Service violated Elian's rights by failing to interview the boy or hold an asylum hearing.

A federal appeals court unanimously rejected the relatives' request for a rehearing last Friday, and said emphatically it would not take up the case again.

The Supreme Court opted to do nothing, allowing the deadline to pass and Elian and his family to return home unhindered.

'Immense harm'

Last week, Gregory Craig, one of Elian's lawyers in a written legal submission to the Supreme Court, said: "Each passing day in this country causes Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family - including Elian - immense and irreparable harm."

The Elian saga
27 Nov: Rescued off Florida coast

5 Jan: INS decides Elian should return to Cuba

11 Jan: Miami judge grants uncle temporary custody

22 April: Federal agents seize Elian.

1 June: Court rules in favour of Elian's father

26 June: Miami relatives file last-minute appeal with the Supreme Court

28 June: Supreme Court decides not to block his return

He added: "Far from a refugee seeking asylum, Elian is a young boy who wants to be with his family, a non-citizen prevented by force of law from returning to his homeland."

Elian was reunited with his father on 22 April, after US federal agents launched an armed raid on the home in Miami where he was staying.

Since then he has been staying with his father, step-mother, half brother and a small group of friends in the Washington area.

On Tuesday, Elian and his father attended a 45-minute prayer service at the United Methodist Church in Washington.

The Rev Dr Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said she believed Mr Gonzalez had not told his son he could be about to return home.

"I don't think his father is going to talk about this until they're sure they're going."

In Cuba, state-run newspaper Granma told its readers that the battle over six-year-old shipwreck survivor was approaching a critical juncture and they should stay "alert and ready for action".

"The decisive hours are approaching," it stated.

"We must stay alert in the next hours. Our people will receive instructions, whatever they may be, when the time comes," the paper added.

Cuban television has also devoted its entire schedule to coverage of the latest news on Elian.

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See also:

02 May 00 | Americas
Elian's story: Special report
23 Jun 00 | Americas
Elian asylum appeal fails
02 Jun 00 | Americas
Father's plea to end Elian feud
02 Jun 00 | Americas
Cuban anger at court ruling
01 Jun 00 | Americas
Court rejects Elian asylum bid
18 Apr 00 | Americas
Elian's relatives at war
27 Apr 00 | Americas
What's life really like in Cuba?
28 Jun 00 | Americas
How the saga unfolded
28 Jun 00 | Americas
Analysis: Castro's victory?
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