ATLANTA - A federal appeals court sided with the government Thursday and denied an asylum hearing for Elian Gonzalez - a ruling that could send the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor back to Cuba with his father within weeks.
The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Elian from leaving the country immediately and gave his Miami relatives two weeks to appeal - either to the full appeals court or the Supreme Court. Family lawyer Kendall Coffey said he hadn't decided on a course of action.
However, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, pleaded with the Miami family to end the court battle so father and son could ''finally go back home together.'' The father came to the United States to reclaim his son in April.
''Make no mistake about what happened today,'' said the father's lawyer, Gregory Craig. ''This case has been decided, and in our view there is no longer any doubt about the ultimate outcome.''
The appeals court ruled that the Immigration and Naturalization Service acted within reason when it decided that only Elian's father could apply for asylum for him, not the Miami relatives.
The court said that because no federal law addresses whether a child as young as Elian can seek asylum against the wishes of his parents, the INS was required to come up with a policy dealing with ''the extraordinary circumstances'' of the case.
The judges acknowledged that Cuba violates human rights and the rule of law. But they said the INS, not the courts, should determine immigration policy.
The judges also denied a request by Elian's father to replace Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez as the boy's representative in the court proceedings, a move that would have allowed the father to drop the asylum request and take his son back to Cuba.
President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno praised the ruling.
''We have said all along that Elian belongs with his father,'' Reno said in Washington. In Berlin, the president said the case spoke to ''the importance of family and the bond between a father and son.''
Outside the Miami relatives' former home in Little Havana, where Elian lived for more than four months until he was taken by armed federal agents and reunited with his father, protesters yelled and wept over the ruling.
About 100 people gathered and vowed to continue their fight to keep the boy in the United States. A small number promised violence if Elian is returned to Cuba.
Sandra Linar, a 40-year-old homemaker, held a sign with a photo of Elian and his mother. ''It is not over yet,'' Linar said. ''God is with us.''
The relatives held out some hope that Elian's father still would be prevented from taking Elian back to Cuba.
''I hope the laws of this country favor him and give him the opportunity to seek asylum,'' said Marisleysis Gonzalez, the cousin who cast herself as a mother figure to Elian after his own mother died in the Thanksgiving Day boat wreck.
She also said she hopes the courts will force Elian's father to allow her family to visit the boy, whom they have not seen since the raid on April 22. Elian and his father essentially have been in seclusion in Washington and Maryland since then, barred from leaving the country until the court fight is over.
In a statement read on Cuban television, the communist government expressed its displeasure with yet another delay in Elian's return, calling the 14-day waiting period for the appeal ''another concession to the 'mafia''' - the term it commonly uses for the exile community in Miami.
While campaigning in Atlanta, Vice President Al Gore said the case would have been best handled in a family court. Gore supports legislation to grant permanent resident status to Elian, his father and other relatives, a position at odds with that of the Clinton administration.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush supports similar legislation, and while campaigning in Nevada, he called on his Democratic presidential rival to urge Clinton to get the case heard in family court.
However, that option has already been rejected. Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez tried to win custody in a Florida family court, and a judge dismissed the case, saying that even if Elian were given permanent resident status, Lazaro could not qualify for custody of him under state law. She also said she could not overrule the INS.
In Washington, Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his attorney said the Miami relatives would best show how much they love Elian by dropping the court case with ''grace and with dignity.''
''I would hope that this would come to an end, and we can finally go back home together with my whole family and that this delay will not continue unnecessarily,'' Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
Departing from his native Spanish, Gonzalez said in English: ''I want to thank the American people. Thank you.''
On the Net:
Appeals Court: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov
Immigration and Naturalization Service: http://www.ins.usdoj.gov
Site of Miami relatives: http://www.libertyforelian.org