HAVANA -- Backed by a threat of force, Cuban authorities Thursday negotiated with armed men for the release of a hijacked ferry and passengers after the boat returned from the high seas in search of enough fuel to reach U.S. shores.
"Force will be used if the hostages' situation becomes critical," said a statement read on state television at midday.
There was no information about what was transpiring between government negotiators and the hijackers, but in the late afternoon an ambulance was seen speeding away from the area of the negotiations.
The hijackers initially agreed to release three of the estimated 50 passengers who were aboard the boat when it was commandeered from Havana Bay, the government said.
"To all other requests they have responded only with their demands for fuel," the statement said.
Journalists near the scene of the negotiations in Mariel said President Fidel Castro arrived in the late morning and stayed for more than six hours.
The drama began early Wednesday when a group hijacked the ferry, which sails between Havana and the communities of Casablanca and Regla on the other side of Havana Bay.
The vessel's seizing came a day after a Cuban passenger plane was hijacked to Key West. Another Cuban plane was hijacked to Key West less than two weeks before.
The string of hijackings coincides with a new crackdown on dissent in Cuba and rising tensions with the United States. Trials began Thursday for the first of 80 dissidents charged with conspiring with U.S. officials.
"The Castro regime's actions are the most despicable act of political repression in the Americas in a decade," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said hours after the trials got under way.
In a highly unusual move, James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana on Wednesday night, warned Cubans not to undertake hijackings, telling them in a message read on communist-run television they would be prosecuted and lose the right to seek American residency.
Russia to build more spacecraft while shuttles are grounded
MOSCOW -- Russia pledged extra money Thursday for building the only spacecraft to service the international space station since U.S. shuttle flights have been grounded.
Russia previously said it could not pay for such construction. The Cabinet's decision to release $38-million ahead of schedule appeared to reflect growing doubts the United States will provide assistance.
Aerospace Agency director Yuri Koptev said the alternative to building more spacecraft was leaving the station temporarily unoccupied, which was dangerous because the station could drift out of its proscribed orbit.
Russian Soyuz crew capsules and Progress cargo ships remain the only means of getting to the station.
Strike disrupts life in Paris
PARIS -- Air traffic controllers, postal workers and other public employees brought much of France to a halt Thursday with a one-day strike over government plans to overhaul the pension system.
The nationwide walkout grounded many commercial flights and limited train service, forcing commuters in Paris to squeeze into packed subway cars or walk to work. All major unions but one were participating in the strike, which started at 8 p.m. Wednesday but was not felt until Thursday morning.
Two U.S. soldiers die in accident
SEOUL, South Korea -- Two U.S. soldiers died and seven were injured when two armored vehicles collided during a military exercise in South Korea, the U.S. military said Friday.
Sgt. 1st Class Lionel Richards, 43, and Sgt. Gilberto Strickland, 30, were killed Wednesday, the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division said. Their hometowns weren't released. Injured were Spc. Luiz Marquez, Spc. Floyd Jordan, Pvt. Luis Grecham, Pvt. William Short, Spc. John Monet, Sgt. William Equipciano and Pvt. Gilberto Foster.
GAZA STRIP: Israeli troops looking for weapons-smuggling tunnels raided a Gaza refugee camp early Thursday, killing four armed Palestinians in exchanges of fire and demolishing five houses. In the West Bank, two Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed by army fire.
PHILIPPINES: Bombs exploded outside three mosques in Davao City early Thursday in what the police said might have been retaliation for a bombing Wednesday near a ferry terminal that killed 16 people and injured 50. No one was killed or injured in the mosque explosions.