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Immigration agency takes former CIA operative into custody

WASHINGTON—The arrest Tuesday in Miami of an anti-Castro Cuban exile accused of terrorist attacks, two months after he entered the United States illegally, is raising new questions about Bush administration terrorism policy.

Luis Posada Carriles, a 77-year-old former CIA operative, was taken into custody by immigration agents after applying for asylum several weeks ago and after an interview with him was published in The Miami Herald.

Posada is accused by the Cuban government of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people and is suspected of organizing bombings in 1997 in Havana that killed an Italian tourist.

He was acquitted twice in the 1976 bombing in Venezuela, but he escaped from prison there in 1985 while the case was on appeal.

Venezuela has requested his extradition, and on Tuesday, Fidel Castro led a massive demonstration past the U.S. mission in Havana demanding Posada's arrest.

But until Tuesday, FBI and Homeland Security officials had said they were not looking for him. Several top Bush administration officials said as late as Saturday they were skeptical Posada was even in the country.

That changed with The Herald's publication of the Posada interview, which had been conducted a few blocks from the Homeland Security office in downtown Miami.

Posada then held a press conference Tuesday morning in a warehouse in a Miami suburb. Immigration officers seized him several hours later in a Miami home. He was flown in a Black Hawk helicopter to an undisclosed location.

"We had no verifiable information until today on where he was," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Posada will be held for up to 48 hours to determine his immigration status, Knocke said.

The Justice Department and Homeland Security will evaluate Venezuela's request and review Posada's case, said Richard Boucher, spokesman for the State Department. Venezuela is Castro's biggest ally in Latin America.

The Posada case, including the extradition issue, puts the Bush administration in an awkward position after its unambiguous pledge to combat terrorism in all forms.

Immigration officials "do not generally remove people to Cuba, nor does Immigration generally remove people to countries believed to be acting on Cuba's behalf," Homeland Security officials said in a statement.

Some Democrats in Congress were critical of the administration's handling of the case.

"It was outrageous that he breached the border and there was no effort to find him," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. "We have an extradition treaty with Venezuela, and if we ignore that, what message does that send to the rest of the world in the war on terrorism?"

Posada admitted in his interview with The Herald that he entered the United States illegally in March and had been living in Miami, where "people recognized me in the market, at the doctor's office, mostly older people."

Posada denied having a role in the airliner bombing, but refused to say if he was involved in the Havana hotel bombings—for which he had claimed credit in interviews with The New York Times in 1998, before recanting.

"Let's leave it to history," Posada told The Herald.

Posada has never been prosecuted in Cuba or the United States for the Havana bombings. The Cuban government has said Posada would face a firing squad there.

Declassified reports show Posada worked as an anti-Castro operative for the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s. After he escaped Venezuela, he worked on the U.S. supply effort for Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s.

Panamanian officials arrested Posada in 2000 for a plot to kill Castro, and he was later convicted of endangering public security. He was pardoned last year and disappeared, apparently fleeing to Honduras.

Livio Di Celmo, brother of the Italian killed in the Havana bombing, said he was outraged to learn Posada had applied for asylum.

"It's like a New York or New Jersey resident who lost a relative in the Sept. 11 attacks, and the mastermind of this terrorist act is living in Canada. Wouldn't they be upset at the Canadian government?" Di Celmo said in an interview with The Herald.

Posada's account of entering the United States across the Mexican border and taking a bus to Miami also embarrassed U.S. officials at a time when border and document security are major issues.

Posada told The Herald that an immigration officer questioned him and others on the bus, but let him go, even though he did not have documents the officer requested.

"Sir, I'm 80 years old, I forget things," Posada said he told the officer. "Right now, I don't even remember where I'm going."

Posada told reporters Tuesday that he realized that his presence had become a problem for the United States and that he was ready to abandon his application for asylum.

"If my petition for political asylum created any problem to the government of the United States, I am ready to reconsider my petition," he said. "My only objective is to fight for the freedom of my country."

Posada talked to The Herald last Wednesday, originally insisting that the interview be "off-the-record." But he later agreed to its publication.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POSADA

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