WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno is laying plans to use force if necessary to return Elian Gonzalez to his father but is still open to negotiations with his Miami relatives, a spokeswoman said today.
''If necessary the attorney general is prepared to use law enforcement'' to pick up Elian over the objections of relatives who have temporarily cared for him since Thanksgiving, Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said. ''If and when there's a law enforcement action, we are not going to be previewing it.''
Florman portrayed Reno as virtually out of options other than law enforcement.
''She is looking to our law enforcement officials to determine the best timing and methods'' for removing Elian from the house where hundreds of Cuban exiles have gathered, promising to form a human chain to prevent the boy's removal, Florman said.
Nevertheless, Florman said, ''The doors are always going to be open to the family for a negotiated settlement. She said last night she is willing to consider any specific suggestions for how to achieve a cooperative resolution.''
Planning for law enforcement operations has been under way for the last 10 days, Florman said. This has included assessment of any patterns in the activities of the crowd of exiles in the street, consultation with local police and positioning of key federal agents nearby, other officials said.
''There is a plan. There's probably more than one,'' Florman said today.
On Thursday, President Clinton said a court ruling has stripped Elian's Miami relatives of all arguments against transferring temporary custody to his father. ''That is the law,'' Clinton said.
Clinton commented after a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta said Elian must remain in the United States until the court decides whether he should get an asylum hearing. A hearing was set for May 11.
The ruling was viewed by the Miami relatives and their allies as a victory, but Clinton said it reinforced the administration's case for Elian to be reunited with his father.
The Washington Post today quoted unidentified government officials as saying they expected a law enforcement move to retrieve Elian by the middle of next week. USA Today quoted officials as saying the action would come next week.
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