HAVANA (AP) — Four Cuban exiles from Miami are being held for planning "terrorist actions" against military targets on the island, Havana authorities said Wednesday in announcing the first such arrests in years.
The Interior Ministry said the men were detained April 26, but released few specific details. It was not clear why it took so long to make the arrests public.
"They intended to attack military installations with the goal of perpetrating violent actions," the ministry said in a statement published by the Communist Party newspaper Granma. "To such ends, since mid-2013, three of them had made several trips to the island to study and carry out their plan."
The arrests come amid increased exchanges between exiles and their homeland, including visits by several prominent former hardliners who had vowed never to set foot in Cuba while brothers Fidel and Raul Castro were still in charge.
The statement identified the detained men as Jose Ortega Amador, Obdulio Rodriguez Gonzalez, Raibel Pacheco Santos and Felix Monzon Alvarez.
None are well-known within the exile community in South Florida, but Cuba claimed they were acting on orders from others who do have a history of militancy. Pacheco had been part of a tiny exile group called Fuerza Cubana de Liberacion Inc., defunct since 2010.
The ministry said it was reaching out to U.S. authorities to investigate.
"We have seen the statement by the Cuban Ministry of Interior," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We don't have any further information at this time. The Cuban government has also not been in touch with us yet on these cases."
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana and the FBI office in Miami had no immediate reaction.
In its statement, the Interior Ministry alleged the plot was masterminded by Santiago Alvarez Fernandez Magrina, Osvaldo Mitat and Manuel Alzugaray in Miami. It also linked them to perhaps the best known militant Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, whom Cuba and Venezuela have sought to prosecute for a 1976 airliner bombing that killed 73 people aboard a flight bound for Cuba.
"We categorically deny that Luis has absolutely anything to do with this or has any knowledge of any of these individuals who were allegedly arrested in Cuba," said Arturo Hernandez, Posada Carriles' attorney.
Hernandez said that Posada has been ill with cancer for most of the past two years and that it was "ridiculous" to suggest he would lead any military incursion in Cuba.
Santiago Alvarez and Mitat pleaded guilty in 2006 in the United States to conspiracy after an informant tipped the FBI that a large cache of weapons, including machine guns and a grenade launcher, was being moved from apartments Alvarez owned.
A subsequent search of a storage area at the apartment revealed more weapons and thousands of bullets. Another arms cache was found in the Bahamas, including C-4 plastic explosive, which prosecutors claimed was linked to Alvarez. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and Mitat got a two-year sentence.
Contacted Wednesday, Santiago Alvarez denied involvement in any plot and said he did not know the detained men. He said he rarely speaks to Posada Carriles and only sees Mitat occasionally. Posada Carriles declined to comment.
Alvarez accused Havana of trying to drum up an excuse to crack down further on island dissidents. He said he still supports change on the Communist-run island, but no longer condones violence.
"Honestly, if I could, I would be doing it," he said. "But the truth is, the thought of everybody of how to fight the dictatorship in Cuba has changed — the tactics at least."
"This is nothing more than a plan to use my name to go against the opposition in Cuba," he said.
It has been years since Cuban authorities have reported a specific terror threat such as the one alleged Wednesday.
In 2001, three Cuban-Americans were detained on the island after coming onshore with guns and ammunition, according to Cuban authorities. They were prosecuted nine years later over an alleged plan to place a bomb in the famous Tropicana nightclub.
In 1997, a series of hotel bombings hit Havana, one of which killed an Italian man. Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals were arrested and pointed to Posada Carriles and other exiles as the intellectual authors of the attacks.
Elizardo Sanchez, a Cuban non-governmental human rights monitor on the island, said he had not heard anything about the detained exiles. His organization has regular communication with people in Cuban lockups.
"It is very strange," he said. "This feeds the idea that there is an external threat."
Longtime Cuban exile activist Pepe Hernandez, who heads the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, also said he did not recognize the names of the detained men.
He said he found the timing of Cuba's announcement suspicious, noting that among other things the arrests come as a growing number of exiles and others are urging the Obama administration to expand opportunities for travel to Cuba and support for small businesses there.
"The Cuban government may be trying to raise the stakes for the United States. Historically, whenever it negotiates, it always tries to so from a position of strength," Hernandez said.
Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz and Curt Anderson in Miami and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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