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Skyjacking suspect returns to U.S. by raft

1980, the Mariel boatlift: Elvis Rafael Fonseca Machado flees Cuba.

Aug. 14, 1980: Fonseca hijacks an airliner from Miami to Havana, authorities say.

Tuesday: Fonseca attempts another crossing of the Straits of Florida, this time in a homemade raft. He and five others are rescued by the Coast Guard.

Wednesday: Fonseca is in jail, having discovered that U.S. authorities have long memories and good records. He is held on an air piracy arrest warrant issued in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 2, 1981.

"This thing could get a little complicated," said Paul Miller of the FBI.

Fonseca, 46, and Jose Garcia Sanchez were accused of hijacking National Flight 872 with 12 crew members and 211 passengers bound from Miami to San Juan. Forty minutes into the flight they reportedly took out a container of liquid they said was gasoline and threatened to start a fire.

They were flown to Havana, where they were arrested by Cuban authorities, Miller said. Federal Aviation Administration records show that Fonseca later was sentenced to five years in a Cuban prison and Garcia was given four years.

Tuesday, Fonseca was among six rafters found by Cuban exile fliers in the group Brothers to the Rescue. The Coast Guard picked them up 53 miles south of Key West.

They were then turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Key West for routine questioning.

"INS picked up on the fact that this guy was wanted," Miller said, and "took him to the Monroe County Jail." The immigration officials ran Fonseca's name through a federal crime computer and found the outstanding warrant.

Fonseca will get a hearing to determine if he should be sent to Puerto Rico, where the federal air piracy charges were filed.

If convicted of hijacking, Fonseca would face a maximum sentence of life in prison, the FBI said.

The Coast Guard has picked up 988 people so far this year, including 119 during June, said Petty Officer Gary Starks. A total of 2,557 were rescued during 1992.

The hijacking came during a rash of such crimes by homesick Cubans in late summer 1980, a few months after nearly 125,000 Cubans sailed to Florida from the port of Mariel, near Havana.

The hijackings abated after Fidel Castro warned that anyone who went to Florida in the "Freedom Flotilla" would face severe punishment if they hijacked planes to get back to Cuba.

_ Information from the Associated Press and Reuters News Service was used in this report.