Fire guts Miami offices of Cuba travel firm

MIAMI, April 27 Fri Apr 27, 2012 5:59pm EDT

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MIAMI, April 27 (Reuters) - State and local officials were investigating a suspicious fire on Friday that gutted the Miami offices of a travel agency specializing in flights to Cuba.

Fire rescue officials responded to a fire at Airline Brokers before dawn. The ground floor suite of offices was destroyed and an acrid smell hung in the air as police cordoned off the street outside. Investigators searched through the ashes assisted by dogs that are trained to detect accelerant.

"There is an investigation currently underway," said Deborah Cox, a spokeswoman for the state Fire Marshals Office. She said no details were being released because the probe was ongoing.

The FBI is also working with local police "to determine how the investigation will proceed," said the FBI's Miami spokesman, Michael Leverock.

Airline Brokers owner Vivian Mannerud said she suspected arson by Cuban exile militants upset over her role in organizing a special charter flight for 340 Cuban-American pilgrims who went to Cuba last month for the visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

"I'm afraid it was intentional, because of the indignation over the pope's visit," Mannerud said. "But we can't conclude anything until we see the results of the investigation. Maybe it was electrical."

Mannerud said she had not received any recent threats to her business, but she said she was targeted in the early 1990s by Cuban exile extremists.

"If it was intentional, that would be a big blemish on the city. I thought we had moved past the era of terrorist acts," she added, referring to attacks on Cuban exile moderates in previous decades.

For decades after Cuba's 1959 revolution, Miami was the scene of politically motivated arson attacks and car-bombings targeting perceived Cuba government sympathizers and people doing business with the island.

The fire destroyed the contents of the office, Mannerud said, raising the suspicion that an accelerant might have been involved. "It looks like an atomic bomb exploded. It's pulverized and the furniture is ashes. There's not even a leg of a desk," she said.

None of the company's 18 employees were in the office when the fire started.

Airline Brokers is one of a number of charter companies that fly to Cuba from airports in Miami, as well as a growing number of other U.S. cities, including Tampa, New York and Los Angeles, under special Treasury Department licenses.

Mannerud said her company has seven flights a week from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Despite losing all the office computers, she said she planned to continue taking bookings, adding that the company's Cuba flight schedule would not be affected. (Editing By Tom Brown and Stacey Joyce)

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