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Boat with 842 Haitians headed for US winds up in Cuba

VILLA CLARA, CUBA (AP) – A vessel carrying more than 800 Haitians trying to reach the United States (US) wound up instead on the coast of central Cuba, in what appeared to be the largest group seen yet in a swelling exodus from crisis-stricken Haiti.

Red Cross officials in the province of Villa Clara said on Wednesday that the 842 Haitians were being housed at a tourist campground. The group arrived on Tuesday at Villa Blanca, about 300 kilometres east of Havana, and reportedly included 70 children and 97 women.

The Haitians said they called for help with light signals after being abandoned and cast adrift by their captain.

“We were on Tortuga Island for two months waiting for the trip until last Saturday, when at five in the morning they took us to the boat,” 19-year-old Joyce Paul, who arrived on the boat, told AP.

In the following days, “15 people threw themselves into the sea because they couldn’t stand hunger”, Paul said. “There was a herring for (each) 15 people and they gave us water.”

Paul was travelling with an uncle, his wife and a baby at a cost of USD4,000 per person. The family said the captain abandoned them early Tuesday on a separate small boat after taking their cellphones. The ship was listing. With a flashlight, they managed to draw the attention of people on Cuba’s coast.

While the number of migrants on this single vessel seemed unprecedented, the US Coast Guard and other nations have reported intercepting several boats carrying well over 100 Haitians in recent months.

It is not unusual for currents and winds to carry Haitians to Cuba, which borders most of the sea path between Haiti and the US Cuba returns most of the arriving migrants to Haiti.

A crumbling economy and a spike in gang-related violence and kidnappings in Haiti has prompted thousands of Haitians to flee their country in the past year. Human rights activists in Haiti said those fleeing believe they are safer taking the risk on an overcrowded boat than staying in their country.

Haitian migrants wait to be processed and receive medical attention at a tourist campground in Sierra Morena, in the Villa Clara province of Cuba. A vessel carrying more than 800 Haitians trying to reach the United States wound up instead on the coast of central Cuba, government news media said on Wednesday. PHOTO: AP
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