WASHINGTON- Moved by meeting Elian Gonzalez's father, Attorney General Janet Reno announced Friday officials would arrange next week for him to reclaim his 6-year-old son, but she gave Elian's Miami relatives one more chance to drop their resistance and join in a peaceful transfer.
''The law is very clear,'' she sternly told a Justice Department news conference. ''A child who's lost his mother belongs with the sole surviving parent'' - even a parent who volunteered to her on Friday that he wants to live in Cuba, not the United States.
After talking with Reno earlier in the day, the solemn-faced father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, told reporters: ''I am going to have my child soon.''
In an unexpected move, Reno invited the Miami relatives - who have cared for the young Cuban shipwreck survivor for four months - to meet Monday with two psychiatrists and a psychologist to determine how, not if, the transfer should take place. Transfer instructions will follow later next week.
Reno's announcement prompted angry Cuban exiles, who want to prevent Elian's return to a Cuba ruled by Fidel Castro, to call off a protest designed to snarl rush-hour traffic around Miami's international airport. They said she in effect gave the Miami relatives a few more days with Elian.
''I understand and respect with all my heart the deep-seated beliefs which the Cuban exile community feels on this subject,'' said Reno, who grew up in Miami and was an elected state prosecutor there for 15 years. ''I wholeheartedly reject Cuba's system of government. Mr. Gonzalez and I do not share the same political beliefs.''
''But it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child,'' Reno said. ''If we were to start judging parents on the basis of their political beliefs, we would change the concept of family for the rest of time.''
The feeling of Elian's father for his son clearly had touched the attorney general during a face-to-face meeting hours earlier Friday at the Justice Department.
''All you had to do was listen to him and look at him and see how much he obviously loves this little boy,'' Reno told reporters.
The father emerged with his new wife, six-month-old son and lawyer from the hourlong meeting with Reno and Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner and said in Spanish:
''I have been able to explain the suffering that I have been going through and the suffering my son Elian has been going through for the last months.''
Reno later emphasized that no Cuban officials were present at the session, which she called ''open and honest.''
Gonzalez hugged Reno and Meissner at the end of the meeting, Justice aides said.
Reno said the government could have moved anytime since January to return Elian to his father's custody, but it chose instead to give the Miami relatives a chance to challenge the INS decision. They lost that challenge in federal district court.
After that, ''all we asked for was a pledge that the Miami relatives would turn over Elian voluntarily'' if their appeal failed, Reno said. ''They were unwilling to provide us with that assurance.''
Elian has been in the temporary care of a great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and his family since he was found in the Atlantic off Florida last Thanksgiving after his mother drowned as their ship sank during an escape from Cuba.
On Thursday, the relatives broke off days-old negotiations with the government over the transfer of Elian to his father, who arrived from Cuba on Thursday morning.
Next week, Reno said, the government would send them instructions on where and when they must transfer Elian. She noted that immigration law requires temporary custodians to follow government instructions. Among the locations under consideration were federal buildings, universities, schools and churches in the Miami area, officials said.
Before that, though, Reno invited the Miami relatives to meet Monday in Miami with psychiatrists Jerry M. Weiner of The George Washington University Medical School and Paulina F. Kernberg of Cornell University Medical College and psychologist Lordes Rigual-Lynch of Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
She said they had advised the government to reunite the father and son quickly.
On Friday, the relatives appeared to soften their weeks-old insistence that Juan Miguel Gonzalez would have to come to their house in Miami's Little Havana section to get Elian. Hundreds of Cuban exiles gathered outside the home have vowed to form a human chain to prevent his removal.
Family lawyer Manny Diaz said the Miami relatives might be willing to go elsewhere to meet Juan Miguel Gonzalez so long as government officials did not come along. Two Miami relatives - another of Elian's great-uncles, Delfin Gonzalez, and a cousin, Alfredo Martell - flew to Washington on Friday to try to see the father and persuade him to come to Miami.
Delfin went to the suburban home of a Cuban diplomat where Juan Miguel Gonzalez is staying, but the father refused to see him.
Florida's senators - Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Bob Graham - said they had been asked by Elian's Florida relatives to intervene to set up a meeting Monday, either at Lazaro's Miami home or at a neutral location in Florida or Washington between the father and the Florida relatives. They had no immediate answer from Juan Miguel's lawyer.
If the relatives refuse to turn over Elian, the government has two options. It could return to federal court for an order reinforcing its instructions or it could try to remove the boy from Lazaro's home. But the government opposed the second option because of the Cuban exiles camped outside and the possible impact on Elian of any tumult there.
Reno said that if Elian is transferred without the cooperation of the Miami relatives, his father will be free to take him to Cuba immediately. She offered to try to negotiate an agreement for Juan Miguel and Elian to stay until the appeals court rules, in late May, if the relatives cooperate in a prompt turnover now.