KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – A hijacker who forced a Cuban Airlines plane to Key West International Airport yesterday by claiming to have two grenades surrendered about an hour after the aircraft landed with 32 people on board, authorities said.

Shabina Khatri
The alleged hijacker of a Cuban Airline steps off the aircraft. (AP PHOTO)

The hijacker was carrying a small boy when he left the plane, Key West police spokesman Steve Torrence said. The man, wearing a red jacket with ‘America’ stitched in white on the back, was taken into FBI custody.

A bomb squad removed what appeared to be two grenades from the plane and officers were attempting to determine if they were genuine, he said.

The AN-24 plane landed at 11:34 a.m., about 50 minutes after it took off from Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

Some passengers had safely left the aircraft in Havana, but Hector Pesquera, head of the FBI’s South Florida office, said 25 passengers and seven crew members were still on board when the plane landed in Florida.

The crew had been in contact with air traffic controllers in Miami during the flight, FAA spokesman Christopher White said.

Maj. Ed Thomas of the North American Aerospace Defense Command said earlier that the Air Force had scrambled two F-15 Eagles from Homestead Air Force Reserve Base to escort the plane to Key West.

It was the second hijacking from Cuba to Florida in less than a month.

The plane was hijacked late Monday on a flight from Cuba’s small Isle of Youth to Havana. Cuban authorities originally reported six children among the 46 people aboard the hijacked craft.

The hijacker demanded to be flown to Florida, but the plane first went to Havana because it didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the United States, Cuban authorities had said.

Some passengers left the plane at Havana nearly 12 hours after the man seized control. Two separate groups of as many as two dozen passengers, including a woman holding a small child, jumped from an open rear hatch into the arms of emergency workers.

Later, two white cars drove onto the airport tarmac and a man aboard one car handed three large, stuffed plastic bags to someone inside the plane. It was unknown what was inside the bags.

Shortly after daybreak, a tank truck appeared to be refueling the craft.

It would be extremely difficult for an average Cuban to get access to grenades in communist-run Cuba, where such weapons are heavily guarded by the military.

It was also unclear how anyone would get a pair of grenades through the heavy security checks at Cuba’s airports, especially in light of last month’s hijacking on the same route.

A government statement blamed the hijacking on what Havana says is the lax treatment that six other suspected hijackers received last month after forcing a twin-engine DC-3 from Cuba to Key West at knifepoint March 19.

The suspects in the earlier hijack were charged with conspiracy to seize an aircraft by force and violence and face a minimum of up to 20 years in federal prison.

A judge granted them bail – which is what angered the Cuban government – but they remain behind bars because they have been unable to come up with the money.

The DC-3 carried 25 passengers and a crew of six. Sixteen of those aboard later opted to return to Cuba.

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