Havana (AFP) - Cuban authorities arrested an unusually large group of about 100 dissident marchers Sunday, breaking up a march by the Ladies in White opposition activists.
Shouting "Freedom! Freedom!," the women offered no resistance as they were put on buses by dozens of police and plainclothes agents of the only communist-ruled country in the Americas.
A group of about 100 government supporters, who arrived along with the authorities at the scene in Havana's Miramar district, angrily shouted "Viva Fidel, Viva Raul" as the women were whisked away.
The women's group, formed in 2003 by wives and relatives of political prisoners, marches with the government's permission every Sunday in the Cuban capital after hearing mass at Santa Rita parish church.
Since theirs is the only group that has government permission for a regular protest, arrests are few and infrequent.
But on Sunday, dozens of police moved in and surrounded the large crowd of marchers two blocks from the church after they headed toward the sea instead of along their usual route on Miramar's Quinta Avenida.
"The Ladies in White are growing and increasing their base in society... and this is really dangerous for (the government's) legitimacy. That's why they are cracking down so hard," said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua.
Award-winning fellow dissident Guillermo Farinas agreed.
"I think the Cuban government is pulling out all the stops to keep the Ladies in White from growing. That explains so many arrests on Sunday," added Farinas, the 2010 European Parliament's Sakharov Prize winner.
The Ladies in White won the prize in 2005.
- Sensitive timing -
Sunday's march coincided with the 20th anniversary of an incident in which 37 people, including 10 children, drowned trying to flee the communist-ruled island in a tugboat.
The tugboat sank after being intercepted by four Cuban vessels, which survivors said doused the boat with a water cannon and rammed it.
While relatives who lost loved ones blame the Cuban regime for what happened, Havana maintains it was an accident.
A Cuban exile group marked the anniversary by launching fireworks Saturday night from a small flotilla of boats in waters off Havana.
The United States and Cuba have not had full official diplomatic relations for more than half a century.
Florida is a magnet for Cuban migrants, as its shores are just about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Caribbean island.
The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act says any Cuban who reaches US soil by any means will be allowed to stay, live and work. But Cubans who are caught at sea, before setting foot on US territory are sent back.
The United States does not accord this treatment -- pre-approved US residence and work permits for all emigrants who reach American soil -- to people leaving any other nation. It was hard won by Cuban-American lawmakers keen to embarrass Havana.
Cuba blames the law for encouraging people to board rickety boats to cross the Florida Straits in the hopes of reaching the US coast -- a perilous process that has left thousands dead over decades.