By Peter Polack
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (Reuters) - Twenty-four Cubans were rescued from a rickety wooden boat by a passing cruise liner which took them to the Cayman Islands, ship owner Carnival Corp said, as growing numbers of migrants try to sail to Central America and eventually reach the United States.
Officials in the Caymans said last year more Cuban boats were being spotted in its territorial waters, often headed for Honduras, from where migrants make the long journey overland to reach the U.S. border with Mexico.
"In keeping with a longtime tradition of aiding mariners in distress, Carnival Paradise altered its course and brought on board 24 individuals from Cuba who were provided with food, water, fresh clothing and accommodations and evaluated by the ship's medical team," Carnival said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Thursday.
Under an existing agreement between Cuba and the Cayman Islands government, the rescued Cubans will likely be repatriated. Cayman and Cuban officials are due to meet soon to negotiate new migration terms.
The current agreement, signed in 1999, states that Cuban migrant boats are allowed to pass through Cayman waters as long as they do not seek any assistance.
The Caymans is a British territory located less than 100 miles south of Cuba.
The Cayman government does not keep official statistics on Cuban boats traveling through its waters. However, authorities said the number is lower than the spike experienced in the mid-1990s, when tens of thousands of Cubans fled toward Florida by boat and hundreds of refugees flowed into the islands.
Last month, two groups of Cubans were spotted in wooden sailboats off the Caymans. Passengers said they were hoping to reach Honduras and some told Reuters they decided to leave the island because of its economic condition.
Cruise ships have also been involved in several previous rescues.
Last April, the Carnival Conquest and the Disney Wonder rescued 21 Cuban migrants on stricken boats in two separate incidents in the Florida Straits, the sea passage separating the U.S. and Cuba.
(Editing by David Adams and Sophie Hares)