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Regional summit raises concern for Castro's safety

Responding to reports of a plot to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro, Venezuela has clamped tight security on a regional presidential summit this week.

Authorities are investigating allegations that four men who were arrested on a 46-foot boat off Puerto Rico last week planned to kill Castro this weekend at the 7th Ibero-American presidential summit, being held on Venezuela's Margarita Island.

But the increased security measures came under fire Tuesday after Venezuelan state security police mistakenly arrested seven moderate Cuban exile leaders in Margarita on Monday and escorted them to the mainland capital of Caracas. They were later released.

Among those arrested were Carlos Alberto Montaner and Jose Ignacio Rasco, both moderate anti-Castro activists who oppose any violent overthrow in Cuba. All those arrested are members of the Cuban Democratic Platform, a coalition of political organizations that favor dialogue as a means to peaceful change in Cuba.

They were in Margarita for a news conference to denounce the Castro government and call for democratic reforms. Cuban exiles say Castro should be forced to respect the Vina del Mar Declaration, signed by all the presidents at last year's Ibero-American summit in Chile, which includes a firm commitment to democracy and respect for fundamental human rights.

By arresting the Cuban exiles without any apparent justification, the police may have violated Venezuela's own code of constitutional and civil rights. "I am appalled by the absurdity of these measures, which are an outrage and a stupidity," said Venezuelan Sen. Pedro Pablo Aguilar.

Embarrassed Venezuelan officials tried to play down the arrests as the overzealous behavior of police anxious to maintain tight security for the summit. "It must have been a misunderstanding," said Justice Minister Hilarion Cardozo. The exiles were only briefly detained for "suspicious activities" and voluntarily chose to leave the island, according to Asdrubal Aguiar, a presidential aide.

But at a news conference the exiles painted a different picture. "Twenty heavily armed police burst into our room, confiscated our papers, barred us from making telephone calls and then bundled us onto a night flight back to the mainland," Montaner said. "If this wasn't a kidnapping it was pretty close."

After authorities realized their blunder, Montaner said President Rafael Caldera telephoned him to apologize. The group said they planned to return to the island once police returned confiscated documents.

The arrests came only a few days after the U.S. Coast Guard picked up four Cuban men off the coast of Puerto Rico after their boat, La Esperanza, started taking on water. During an inspection Customs agents found two long-range .50-caliber sniper rifles, ammunition and military supplies.

One of the men, Angel Manuel Alfonso, is said to have confessed that the sniper rifles were to be used to kill Castro upon his arrival in Margarita. However, others said they were en route to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to deliver the boat to new owners.

According to the Florida maritime records the boat is owned by Juan Antonio LLama, a Miami businessman who is a director of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and former member of Brigade 2506, the Cuban exile unit that launched the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Llama has made no comment and has not been implicated in any plot.

The four Cubans arrested, all thought to be in their 50s and 60s, have not been linked to any exile group. They appeared in U.S. District Court in San Juan on Thursday charged with weapons violations and remain in custody in Puerto Rico.