WASHINGTON _ Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez and their allies are questioning whether the boy's father is fit as a parent as time runs out in their battle to retain custody of the 6-year-old refugee.
The White House and the father's attorney insisted Sunday that the boy belongs with his father, but lawyers for the relatives suggested there is evidence he is unfit to care for the small child.
President Clinton said he hoped for a peaceful resolution, as members of Congress on both sides of the issue took to the Sunday talk shows.
Talks between government lawyers and representatives of the Miami relatives were resuming today, against a Justice Department-set Tuesday deadline for a signed agreement by the family to turn Elian over for return to Cuba if it loses a custody battle in court.
In Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro said Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was willing to travel alone to the United States today if officials promised to turn over the boy to him and let them return to Cuba right away.
The boy's great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, issued a statement Sunday in Miami inviting Juan Gonzalez, his wife and their baby son to "spend time with us as a family, to begin a process of interaction with Elian under circumstances that are best for him."
"Our goal is to reunite Elian and his father," said Maria Cardona, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Suffice it to say, the issue is not whether we will transfer Elian to his father, but when and how."
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., joined the relatives' lawyers in suggesting Elian might not be safe with his father.
"They do take kids away from fathers and keep them away from them where there's child abuse or problems. We don't know what the situation is," Burton said on CNN's "Late Edition," explaining that he was beaten as a child. "All the facts should come out in a family court. That's the only way to know for sure that this boy's going to be safe going back to Cuba with his father."
That's not the case here, said attorney Gregory Craig, who represents Elian's father. "There is no doubt this father loves his boy very, very much," he said.
The relatives' lawyers suggested otherwise. Attorney Manny Diaz said their legal team has submitted evidence to the federal court and the Clinton administration, although he declined to detail it.
"One of the lawyers on our team met with the attorney general at the beginning of this process and raised those types of concern," Diaz said on ABC's "This Week."
But Craig said the family is just now raising the issue after months of acknowledging that Gonzalez was a loving man. "It's outrageous," he said on CNN.
The family's arguments come as the Justice Department insists the relatives agree to surrender Elian if they lose their pending court case.
It has given the relatives until Tuesday to sign such a promise and has threatened to revoke the boy's permission to be in this country if they do not agree. That deadline has already been extended twice.
Family members want to preserve their option to keep up the legal fight even if they lose their case in federal court. They also want a family court, which considers a child's best interests, to hear the case.
The Miami relatives have said they will surrender the boy if INS agents show up at their door and demand him. Federal officials hope to avoid that.
White House chief of staff John Podesta stressed that the administration believes Elian should be with his father, who wants him back in Cuba.
"A child belongs with his natural parent unless that parent's unfit," Podesta said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We have no indication that Elian's father is an unfit parent."
Still, attorney Linda Osberg-Braun continued to push that theory. She said the father told Elian on the telephone that his mother was alive and waiting for him in Cuba when, in fact, his mother died last November in the effort to reach the United States. Elian was left clinging to an inner tube following a shipwreck until being rescued.
Osberg-Braun speculated that Elian's father was under the influence of the Cuban government when he misled his son.
"That's cruel, and we understand that that's because of the forces in Cuba coaching him and coercing him to say these horrible things to his son," she said on CBS. "That needs to be discussed. It needs to be explored."
Supportive members of Congress backed the attorneys' theories. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., said the father should not be allowed unrestricted visitation with his son unless a court grants him the right.
Others forcefully disagreed. Conservative Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., said Elian should be returned to Cuba right away.
"If my little boy ... was lost, what position does a court have to come in and start evaluating whether I'm a fit father or not?" he said on Fox.
Meanwhile, President Clinton said he was optimistic a resolution could be found.
"There are a lot of people on both sides of this issue who are more concerned with what is in the best interest of the child than the larger political issues involving Castro and Cuba," he told reporters Sunday while flying on Air Force One to Las Vegas.
"That ... gives me hope we can find a principled resolution that is not just a train wreck for the child, a train wreck for the rule of law or a train wreck for all concerned. We'll see. I'm hopeful."