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Cuban exiles sail fireworks flotilla toward island, Raul Castro's government indignant
HAVANA (AP) ' A coalition of Cuban exiles sailed south from Florida on Friday to protest the island's human rights record by lighting up the night sky with fireworks, eliciting a stern rebuke from Havana officials who called it an affront to national sovereignty.
The boats planned to anchor a little more than 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the Cuban capital, just inside international waters, and it was not clear whether the show would be visible from the seafront, especially with Havana skies overcast and rainy. The display was expected to get under way at about 7 p.m.
Organizers insisted that the exiles' 18th protest flotilla over the years would be peaceful and was not a provocation, though they were said they were trying to coordinate the protest with actions by dissidents on the island. They called on other Havana residents to bang soup pots in solidarity during the fireworks on the eve of International Human Rights Day.
The exiles say they are merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, and the U.S. government has said it can't legally stop them. Cuban officials accused them of having malicious aims.
"There's a whole program of provocative acts," said Jose Luis Mendez, a Cuban Interior Ministry official. "This is not just about innocuous fireworks. It is subversive."
More than two dozen members of the Ladies in White dissident group, meanwhile, were holding a literary tea and discussing the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the house of former leader Laura Pollan, who died last month.
"It's the eve of Human Rights day, which is celebrated in the entire world, but here we can't," said Berta Soler, who accused police of blocking some members from joining them. Other dissidents also reported some detentions to keep people from gathering or protesting, though the arrests could not be independently confirmed.
Flotilla organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez of the small nonprofit the Democracy Movement said about 50 protesters were going in six boats, including an 85-foot vessel and a small security craft. About a dozen members of the news media were following the group.
"Everything is going well despite the rough seas," he told The Associated Press on Friday shortly before departure.
A Miami Herald reporter traveling on board said later on Twitter that the group was on schedule to arrive and make anchor around 6:30 p.m.
State Department Spokesman William Ostick said federal authorities have met with the organizers to ensure they comply with U.S. and international laws. He says the organizers have assured they will not violate Cuban territorial waters or airspace.
"We have urged the Democracy Movement and the Cuban government to exercise caution and restraint during the Democracy Movement's December 9 fireworks shows in international waters off Havana," he said in a statement.
"We have also made it clear to Cuban authorities as well as participants in this event that the U.S. government would punish any violation of U.S. laws," he continued, adding, "The United States government does not promote or encourage this activity."
Nevertheless, Cuban authorities have criticized Washington for not blocking the protest.
"That the Obama administration did not refuse to allow this kind of action is a very troubling sign, from the vantage point of it could create situations that nobody wants," Mendez said.
A colleague in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Rene Mujica, said President Raul Castro's government had communicated its concern to Washington but declined to say whether it had sent a formal note protest.
"The United States is perfectly informed about the Cuban government's concerns regarding this kind of provocations that have been repeatedly made against our country," Mujica said. "They can have consequences beyond their supposed immediate objectives."
The Coast Guard has said it will patrol the area to ensure the protesters are well behind the 12-mile mark.
Past exile actions have included clandestine missions on or near the island. In 1996, the Cuban military shot down two planes carrying activists from the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four members. Cuba maintains the group flew into Cuban territory. The activists deny the allegation.
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.