HAVANA (AP) - President Fidel Castro said Elian Gonzalez's father was willing to travel alone to the United States Monday morning if U.S. officials promise to turn over the boy to him and let them return to Cuba right away.
Failing that, visas would be sought for father Juan Miguel Gonzalez and an entourage of 27 others to leave for the United States as early as Tuesday to try to get Elian back, Castro said Sunday during a live appearance on national television.
The announcement was made in a letter signed by Gonzalez, which Castro read. Gonzalez sat in the television audience, looking distraught and exhausted.
''I am willing to leave tomorrow, absolutely alone and transport myself to where the child is,'' Castro read from the letter. After picking up the child, the letter said, father and son would ''return immediately to Cuba,'' said Castro.
Last week, Castro said Gonzalez was willing to travel to the United States and wait out the results of an appeal for custody by their Miami relatives in federal appellate court, if the U.S. government gave him custody of Elian in the meantime.
Since Castro's comments Sunday appeared to indicate the visa applications not been filed yet, it raised questions about whether Gonzalez and the schoolchildren would be able to travel to the United States this week, or any time soon.
Castro also announced Sunday that the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was willing to give up diplomatic immunity over his residence in Washington, where the communist government has proposed Gonzalez would stay at the residence with Elian during the appeal.
He said that was meant as a gesture to Elian's Miami relatives so they cannot balk at handing Elian over on the pretext that the residence is considered Cuban territory.
The Justice Department has given the boy's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, until Tuesday to sign a promise to surrender Elian if he and his family lose their court battle. Gonzalez has so far refused to sign such a pledge.
Before the announcement, Castro was shown on national television playing the affectionate grandfather to Elian's first-grade classmates who plan to travel with the boy's father to keep Elian company while waiting for the legal battle to run its course.
The boys and girls, wearing their red and white school uniforms, stared up from their blue plastic seats in the television studio at the tall uniformed man with the graying beard.
Patting some of the kids on the head, Castro assured them that they formed a powerful ''commando.''
''Not even the Pentagon can handle these kids,'' he joked. ''We are hoping that they get their visas.
''If one doesn't go, none goes,'' Castro said.
The U.S. State Department has been hesitant about granting visas to a large entourage. Castro had originally said a group of 31 people - including Elian's father - would seek visas, and did not explain the new number of 28.
Also in the television studio audience were several other top communist leaders, including Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.
Castro has spoken at several of the roundtables the government has aired nightly over the past week to keep Cubans updated on rapidly changing developments in the case.
Elian has been at the center of the tug-of-war since he was rescued off the coast of Florida in late November. His mother was among 11 people who died after they boat sank during the attempted crossing from Cuba to the United States.
Elian's Miami relatives are fighting to keep the boy in the United States, saying they can give him a better life off the communist island. Gonzalez has demanded his rights as the child's sole surviving parent and wants Elian returned to him.