A U.S. jury today found five Cuban exiles, including a leader of a powerful Miami-based anti-Castro group, not guilty of plotting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The case was the first time the Justice Department charged anyone with plotting to kill Castro, an arch foe of the United States since his 1959 revolution.

U.S. authorities alleged that the men--some of whom were captured off Puerto Rico on a boat loaded with military gear, including sniper rifles--wanted to murder the communist leader at a 1997 Ibero-American summit on Venezuela's Margarita Island.

The defense argued that the men were peaceful protesters and that the weapons were to be used for protection against Cuban authorities.

The U.S. District Court jury deliberated for eight hours over two days before finding Angel Alfonso, 59, Angel Hernandez Rojo, 62, Francisco Secundino Cordova, 51, Jose Rodriguez Sosa, 59, and Jose Antonio Llama, 67, not guilty on all counts.

The five were among seven stalwarts of the U.S. anti-Castro movement charged with conspiracy to commit murder and weapons violations. Charges against one of the men were dismissed last week, and another was too sick to stand trial.