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Coast Guard policy flawed, probe finds

Eight officers will be reinstated, an admiral says, but refugee guidelines will be changed.

The use of pepper spray and fire hoses on a group of Cuban refugees trying to reach shore June 29 was inappropriate, but U.S. Coast Guardsmen were not at fault and acted under a flawed policy, a rear admiral said Tuesday.

As a result of the incident, the Coast Guard has changed some of its guidelines for encounters with refugees at sea.

Use of pepper spray will now be restricted to when there is a clear threat to the safety of officers or the refugees. Guardsmen also will not be allowed to use water hoses directly against people, but may still use them to disable engines.

The changes were the result of a monthlong investigation following a confrontation between Coast Guardsmen and six Cubans trying to make it to land in Surfside.

Rear Adm. Thad Allen announced the results of the investigation Tuesday.

Live television broadcasts of the incident prompted widespread protests by Cuban Americans.

Eight Guardsmen were temporarily removed from law enforcement duty. No disciplinary action will be taken against them, and they will be reinstated, Allen said.

"While the use of pepper spray and fire hoses on the migrants in the water was found to be inappropriate and, moreover, ineffective, those officers acted in accordance with the direction they were previously given," said Allen.

"Those officers were striving to comply with their orders to stop the boat from reaching shore, and they in no way intended to hurt or harm the migrants."

The investigation also determined that the Cubans repeatedly threatened Coast Guard personnel and threatened to harm or kill themselves. The report reasserts previous Coast Guard assertions that the Cubans menacingly brandished paddles and a nail-studded board at its officers, an allegation the rafters have denied. Those threats were not visible or audible on media coverage, said Allen.

"On several occasions the migrants threatened to swim into the propellers of our boats," said Allen.

Allen cited aggressive migrant behavior as a factor in the incident.

"They obviously believed such behavior would increase their chances of reaching shore," he said. "That belief is unfounded and dangerous."

News footage of the incident showed Guardsmen blasting the six refugees with a hose as they stood in their 14-foot rowboat about 150 yards from shore. Several Guardsmen swarmed them as they jumped overboard and swam toward land.

One of the swimmers was doused with pepper spray _ to keep him from carrying out his threat to swim into a propeller, the Coast Guard report said. Two reached the beach, and four were plucked from the water and detained aboard a Coast Guard cutter.

Miami's Cuban community protested the Coast Guard's actions, blocking the only road connecting Miami Beach's trendy South Beach and downtown Miami, as well as a major highway west of the city.

A spokeswoman for a prominent Cuban exile group expressed disappointment with the Coast Guard report.

"I don't think that any of us who saw the incident on TV could have seen that whatever they (Cubans) were doing posed a threat to the Coast Guard," said Ninoska Perez of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. "Everybody saw what happened; I don't think they can lie their way around this."

She was also critical of the promised guidelines that would continue to allow the use of fire hoses to stall boat engines. "When you talk about not using the fire hoses on the people and using it on the motors, and one of those vessels overturned, you are talking about endangering people's lives," Perez said.

The Coast Guard also released a report tracking the use of force by its personnel during interdictions between October 1997 and July 1. Pepper spray and fire hoses each were used three times during that period.

Sixty-eight percent, or 13 incidents, involving some use of force are attributed to the 7th Coast Guard District, which encompasses Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Under current immigration policy, foreigners who reach U.S. shores are allowed to seek asylum, but those intercepted at sea are returned to their homeland or another country.

_ Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this report.