HAVANA — Cuba's government is indignant over an exile flotilla that plans to sit off the coast of the island and protest the country's human rights record by lighting up the skies with fireworks.
Foreign Ministry official Rene Mujica calls it yet another in a long series of "provocations" and warns it could have unintended consequences.
Mujica and other officials spoke Friday. Interior Ministry official Jose Luis Mendez said this will be the 18th flotilla by exile groups in South Florida over the years.
Organizers insist their protest will be peaceful and say it is not a provocation. It was not clear whether the display, 12 miles (19 kilometers) off the coast, will be visible to Cuba residents.
The coalition of Cuban exile groups began traveling Friday morning across much of the Florida Straits despite rough seas for a protest off the coast of Cuba that was to include a massive fireworks show.
The group leaving from Key West planned to anchor its flotilla of half a dozen boats a little more than 12 miles off the coast of Havana to raise awareness about the island's human rights abuses.
Saturday is the United Nation's International Human Rights Day.
Organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez of the small nonprofit the Democracy Movement said about 50 protesters were going in six boats, including an 85-foot vessel and a small security craft. About a dozen members of the media were also following the group.
"Everything is going well despite the rough seas, but our departure will be a little behind," he told The Associated Press on Friday shortly before departure. The activists left around 9:30 a.m., according his group.
Cuba has called the demonstration a provocation. The exile groups say they are merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression.
State Department Spokesman William Ostick says federal authorities have met with the organizers to ensure they comply with U.S. and international laws. He says the organizers have provided assurances they will not violate Cuban territorial waters or airspace. Cuban waters stretch about 12 miles off the island.
"We have urged the Democracy Movement and the Cuban government to exercise caution and restraint during the Democracy Movement's December 9 fireworks shows in international waters off Havana," he said in a statement.
"We have also made it clear to Cuban authorities as well as participants in this event that the U.S. government would punish any violation of U.S. laws," he continued, adding, "The United States government does not promote or encourage this activity."
The Coast Guard has said it will patrol the area to ensure the protesters are well behind the 12-mile mark.
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