A waiting crowd cried, laughed, cheered and sang as 671 Cubans who had been exiles in Panama and Costa Rica arrived by air after months or years of separation from relatives living in south Florida.

"This is the happiest day of my life," a teary-eyed Elena Socarras, said after being reunited with her daughter, Zoila Menendez of North Miami, on her arrival Sunday from Panama. "I have wanted to live in this country all my life."Sacarras had been waiting in Panama for a visa since 1984, when she left Cuba.

Three planes - two from Costa Rica and one from Panama - brought the exiles in an operation organized by the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, the first private U.S. group to sponsor refugees under a recently approved federal program.

There were 293 refugees from 102 families aboard the first flight, which arrived from Costa Rica early Sunday at Miami International Airport.

"It was extremely exciting," foundation staff member Fernando Rojas said. "They were all tremendously happy to see their family members, family members who they haven't seen in years."

Sixteen Cubans who had been scheduled to arrive Sunday were left behind in Costa Rica and Panama because of minor problems with their paperwork, foundation spokeswoman Brenda Moreira said. All were expected to travel to Miami by month's end, she said.

Under a special agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the arriving refugees were whisked through Customs, immigration and public health checks at a special staging area set up to speed them to official welcoming ceremonies and family reunions at suburban Tamiami Park.

School buses donated for the occasion carried the new arrivals to the ceremonies directly from the international terminal gates.

The new immigration program allows up to 4,000 refugees to come to the United States to live if they obtain private sponsors and proof they have support and medical coverage for two years.