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#3955: Haitians home after two-week hijack ordeal (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

     By Jennifer Bauduy

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, May 29 (Reuters) - Ten suspected hijackers, a band of
fake missionaries and dozens of dazed innocent victims stepped ashore on
Monday after a short boat trip turned into a two-week hijacking ordeal at
     Merchant Louis-Nord Louis, 55, sighed with relief to be back on land
after a planned journey to Haiti's southwest coast to sell rice, sugar and
flour became a 1,000-mile (1,600-km) odyssey when armed gunmen commandeered
his ferry in a bid to reach Miami.
     "What would I want to do in the white man's land? I can barely see,"
the half-blind Louis said sitting at the Haitian Naval base in Carrefour, a
busy suburb of Port-au-Prince.
     Louis and 119 other Haitians were returned to Haiti Monday by the U.S.
Coast Guard cutter "Confidence" after being intercepted on May 23 about 30
miles (49 km) south of the Bahamian island of Andros, 500 miles (805 km)
northwest of Haiti.
     U.S. authorities said the 120-foot (37-metre) vessel "Gonave en
Fleche," which normally sails between Port-au-Prince and the southwestern
fishing village of Pestel, was seized on May 16 by 10 men in civilian
clothes claiming to be police officers.
     The hijackers, brandishing weapons, ordered the crew to take the ferry
to Miami, ignoring the captain's warning that the vessel did not have
enough fuel to make the trip. It ran out of fuel off the Bahamas.
     Haitian police said two of the men were active members of the Haitian
National Police force and eight were former police officers.
     The boat's manager, passengers and crew on Monday told a strange tale
in which dozens of people, including the current and former police
officers, posed as missionaries to charter the ferry under pretense of
sailing for Haiti's southwest department but always intending to head for
the United States.
     The boat's subcontractor, Serge Jeudi, said 60 people claiming to be
missionaries for the Church of Saintete rented the vessel for $2,125,
allegedly to go to Pestel.
     "They were fake missionaries," Roussel Paul, 24, a crew member said.
     Passenger Johnny Charles, 28, said he knew all along the boat was
heading for Miami. He said he wanted to go to Florida in search of a better
life and paid $250 for the trip.
     "But I didn't expect things to turn out as they did -- with guns
drawn," Charles said.
     Before setting sail, the crew boarded another 30 passengers who
believed they were getting on a ferry headed to Pestel, crew members said.
     But hours after the boat left Port-au-Prince on May 16, the gunmen
tied up passengers and rerouted the boat.
     "I took a nap, and when I woke up I was tied up," crew member Sonny
Pierre, 19, said.
     The boat soon ran out of drinking water and fuel.
     "They threatened to shoot us and throw our bodies in the water," Erol
Daniel, 23, a boat mechanic said.
     The 10 suspects were led away Monday in handcuffs and faced five to 10
years of prison for hijacking, authorities said.
     "We didn't steal the boat, we paid ($2,125) for it. We just couldn't
tell the captain we were going to Miami," Michel Eurux, one of the suspects
and a former police officer, said, his hands handcuffed in front.
     Many Haitians try to leave their Caribbean homeland in small boats to
make the 650-mile (1,046-km) trip to Florida in hope of building a better
life. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and is struggling to
establish a stable democracy following decades of dictatorship.
     On May 21, Haiti held its first national elections in more than three
     The U.S. Coast Guard has rescued 700 Haitians at sea this year, many
packed into barely seaworthy vessels. Haitian migrants intercepted at sea
or on U.S. shores are generally sent home.
     U.S. immigration authorities did allow one person from the ferry, a
13-year-old boy, to travel to the United States to pursue an asylum claim.