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Court Temporarily Blocks Elian’s Departure for Cuba

By Mike Clary, Hector Tobar and Richard A. Serrano

A federal appeals court on Thursday issued a temporary order blocking any move by the United States to send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba while the boy’s Miami relatives and his father remain stalemated over a family meeting that might lead to a breakthrough in their bitter custody fight.

The emergency stay was issued by a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in response to a petition from the boy’s Miami relatives, and came just one hour after the relatives defied a 2 p.m. deadline set by Attorney General Janet Reno for the boy to be delivered to immigration officials at a nearby airport.

The temporary injunction took the immediate pressure off Reno and the federal government, giving officials until Friday and perhaps several days more to figure out how best to transfer custody of Elian to his father as they prepare to argue to the court what they believe should be done for the child.

The missed deadline and the court order highlighted another dizzying day of developments in the emotional battle over the doe-eyed Cuban boy, whose mother and 10 others died last November when their boat capsized during an attempt to sail to south Florida.

Family members released a homemade video in which Elian says he wants to stay in the country, the president discussed the importance of the rule of law, and the Vatican offered to intercede. Yet again, surging emotions ran through a crowd visited by some of this city’s leading luminaries.

For now the 6-year-old remained in the Little Havana home of his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, where he has lived since he was rescued at sea more than four months ago.

And the child’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, remained holed up in Washington, where in the eight days since he arrived from Cuba he has grown increasingly frustrated over the failure of the United States to bring him his son as promised. During the afternoon, stepping out the front door of the Cuban Interests Section, a stern-faced Juan Miguel Gonzalez directed an obscene hand gesture toward a handful of demonstrators.

“Today, Lazaro Gonzalez broke the law,” said Gregory B. Craig, an attorney representing the child’s father. “Elian Gonzalez is being held unlawfully in Miami against his father’s wishes.”

Among the several hundred Cuban Americans who surrounded the home where the boy has been living the mood turned from tense to jubilant. “If no one had been here they would have taken the boy,” Julian Verbeja said. “They didn’t dare come here.”

The Justice Department was to respond to the stay by 9:30 a.m. Friday, but officials do not expect a ruling for several days. “We agreed to this with a time frame in mind of three or four days,” said Justice spokeswoman Carole Florman.

Earlier Thursday, Reno held a Miami news conference to offer details of her meeting late Wednesday with Lazaro Gonzalez, his daughter Marisleysis, Elian and several attorneys for the family during which she failed to persuade them to travel to Washington with the child.

“I am trying to work through an extraordinary human tragedy and the importance in working through it is that we do so without violence, without having to cause further disruption to the little boy,” said Reno.