-- Six Cubans were charged today with hijacking a Cuban airliner at knifepoint and forcing the pilots to fly it to Florida.

The hijacking, which occurred Wednesday night just before the United States launched its war in Iraq, forced the U.S. military to scramble fighter jets to intercept the aging aircraft and escort it to a safe landing in Key West.

The suspects made their first court appearance in a Key West federal courthouse and were held for arraignment Tuesday on air piracy charges. They face a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted.

U.S. authorities say the six took over the DC-3 as it headed from Cuba's Isle of Youth to Havana, breaking down the cockpit door and trussing four crew members with tape and rope. Five of the six were armed with knives.

U.S. agents were piecing together events on the DC-3, flown by the Cuban state airline Aerotaxi, by questioning 25 passengers and six crewmembers who were being held at an immigration detention center near Miami.

A Coast Guard official called the hijacking a likely defection attempt, but an FBI spokeswoman said the motive was not known.

The Cuban government called the hijacking "an act of terrorism" and demanded the return of the plane, its crew and all the passengers, including the hijackers.

The U.S. government put the nation on a heightened state of alert this week in advance of an invasion of Iraq. Florida's coast has been a concern since four armed Cuban Coast Guard members slipped a military vessel into Key West without being detected last month.