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US hijacker returns from Cuba after nearly 30 years to face charges

William Potts, left, is escorted into Miami FBI headquarters after he was taken into custody following his arrival in the U.S. on Wednesday. Joe Skipper / Reuters

An American who almost 30 years ago hijacked a plane and forced it to fly to Cuba was taken into FBI custody after he returned to the United States on Wednesday to face federal charges.

William Potts hid a handgun in a plaster cast when he boarded a flight carrying 56 people in Newark, N.J., in 1984. The former U.S. militant member of the Black Panthers hijacked the plane, bound for Miami, and forced the pilot to land in Havana, where he thought he would receive a warm welcome.

Instead, Potts was arrested, convicted of air piracy, and jailed in a Cuban prison for 13 years. After he was freed, he stayed in Cuba, got married, and had two daughters, who have lived in the U.S. since 2012, according to Reuters.

Now, Potts, 56, wants to be back in the U.S. himself. He flew from Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Wednesday morning to Miami, where he is wanted for air piracy. Upon his arrival on his charter flight, he was taken into FBI custody.

He was scheduled to appear before a judge in Miami on Thursday, FBI Special Agent Michael Leverock told Reuters.

Potts was taken to the Havana airport in a U.S. diplomat car and escorted to Miami by an American official.

"I've got kind of mixed emotions, let me say that at least, about touching American soil for the first time in nearly 30 years," Potts said, reported NBCMiami.com. "So much has changed, and I'm just going to have to wait and see what it looks like when I get there."

U.S. citizen William Potts, right, waves goodbye to his wife Aime Quesada, left, after he arrived to the U.S. Interests Section to be escorted to the airport by U.S. officials in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday. AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

He told reporters earlier he hoped the American justice system would be lenient on him.

"I'm ready for whatever. My position is, of course, I did the crime and I did the time, and the United States has to recognize that," he told the Associated Press.

Potts is believed to be one of the last of more than a dozen members of the Black Panthers — a black nationalist group — who hijacked planes and are still living in Cuba, according to Reuters.

In 2009, Potts wrote a letter to President Barack Obama seeking a pardon.

According to the BBC, Potts does not intend to stay in the U.S. long-term.

"Just as soon as I finish taking care of this business in the United States, I certainly have every intention of returning to Cuba to live," he said, the BBC reported.

The U.S. charges prevent him from living his life fully in the modest apartment east of Havana where he resides, the AP reported.

"It's time it had closure. Why leave it hanging, why leave this gaping uncertainty?" he said. "So I want to resolve that because ... having completed my sentence, I feel like I want to put all that stuff behind me. I don't want that lingering over or impeding anything I might want to do. Once you've paid your debt to society you're entitled to a fresh start."

NBC's Mary Murray and Reuters contributed to this report.