KEY WEST, Fla. -- (AP) -- Five boats carrying dozens of Cuban exiles left Conch Harbor Marina early Saturday for a memorial service to be held in international waters off Havana later in the morning.
The flotilla, organized by the Miami-based exile group Democracy Movement, departed the marina around 12:27 a.m. EDT and was expected to reached a point 12 1/2 miles off the Cuban coast around 9 a.m., said Ramon Saul Sanchez, the group's leader.
It is the sixth consecutive year the exiles have organized the flotilla, which started in 1995 as a way to remember 41 men, women and children who drowned on July 13, 1994 while trying to flee Cuba in a tugboat. Cuban gunboats sank the boat by flooding it with water from hoses.
``We will commemorate this event with mirrors and flowers,'' Sanchez said. ``In Cuba, several groups ... will do the same thing from the Malecon district (in Havana). This is a symbolic bridge between people in the two countries.''
Sanchez insisted the flotilla, which also consists of four airplanes, will not stray into Cuban territorial waters. However, he said the group will protest a U.S. law that calls for the confiscation of any American vessel that leaves U.S. territorial waters with the intention of entering Cuba.
``This law is aimed at us,'' said Sanchez, refusing to elaborate on how he planned to protest the law. ``We are going to challenge proclamation in a limited, proactive and nonviolent way.''
Sanchez said five of the 10 boats that were supposed to make the trip backed out because their owners feared the U.S. government would use the law to confiscate their vessels.
On Friday, President Bush ordered stricter enforcement of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and greater support to dissidents on the communist island.
Bush also said he was asking the Treasury Department to do more to ensure that American tourism in Cuba, banned by law, is not occurring under the guise of permitted pro-democracy cultural exchanges.
Sanchez said he was hoping Bush would eliminate the law.
Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman, said his agency will have ships shadowing the flotilla to make sure no boats stray into Cuban waters.
Brothers to the Rescue, another Miami-based Cuban exile group, will also send planes to fly over the flotilla, said Jose Basulto, the group's leader.
He said the planes will head to a point 28 miles north of Havana -- an area known to Cuban exiles as Martyrs' Point -- as a way to remember the 41 tugboat victims and the four Brothers to the Rescue pilots who were killed on Feb. 24, 1996 when their planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets.
Basulto said Martyrs' Point was where the attack took place.