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Cuba, Bahamas: unhappy neighbors

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The Cuban bombing and sinking of a Bahamian patrol boat as it towed two seized Cuban fishing boats is a major incident that could have far-reaching repercussions.

The immediate suspicion is that the current Cuban refugee outflow, now numbering 36,000, has made the Cubans quite nervous and "frantic," as a State Department official termed it.

But the weekend incident is also viewed as a direct outgrowth of longstanding Bahamian protest over Cubans fishing in Bahamian territorial waters.

Although they share the same waters, the Bahamas and Cuba have never been particularly happy neighbors.

Periodically over the past two decades, incidents -- usually involving ships straying off course or fishing in Bahamian territorial waters -- have led to angry words between the two island nations. But never has there been so blatant a confrontation as the weekend sinking of the Bahamian patrol vessel by Cuban MIGs.

In an effort to play down the event, Cuba has sent regrets to the Bahamian government. It earlier said, however, that the boat had been attacked because it appeared to be a "pirate ship" of unknown origin.

The Bahamians are angry. Some have even talked of war against Cuba, though this is unlikely to follow. Bahamians say the affair involves not only the sinking of its ship by Cuban jets, but also mock strafing by jets on Ragged Island as the Bahamian crewmen and their Cuban captives waited to be picked up by Bahamian aircraft. At least four Bahamians died and others were injured. Bahamians charge that the Cuban vessels were also fishing illegally in Bahamian territorial waters.

The government in Nassau plans to protest the episode at the United Nations, but so far it has not asked for a formal session of the UN Security Council.

War is an unlikely prospect in part because the Bahamas does not have much of an army. What seems more likely is an all-out effort to keep Cuban fishing boats out of Bahamian waters. Frequently over the years, Cubans, with their expanding fishing interests, have used the fish-rich Bahamian waters for crab, grouper, and red snapper catches. This has nettled Bahamians, who have on at least six occasions protested Cuban fishing.

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