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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Absent Castro overshadows non-aligned summit

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Fidel Castro was "walking and singing" on Thursday and a rare video showed him standing for the first time even though his absence from a summit of Non-Aligned nations overshadowed the meeting.

It was unclear if the 80-year-old Communist leader would make his first public appearance at the summit of around 40 heads of state and government since falling ill.

A short video broadcast on Cuban state television showed a gaunt-looking Fidel Castro, in dressing gown and pajamas, standing briefly during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the summit, shaking his ally's hand and chatting.

"(Fidel) is walking, singing, he even sang a song.... I saw him well enough to play baseball again, almost...." Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a friend and ally of Castro, told reporters before a speech during which he blasted the United States.

Many delegates traveled to the summit -- labeled a relic of the Cold War by critics -- to gather more first-hand information on the fate of a leader who has symbolized opposition to the United States for over four decades.

Meetings began on Monday, with a plethora of national agendas to be discussed, and should wrap up on Saturday but a gathering of states ranged against the U.S. including Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea looked set to dominate the event.

In his first interview since he ceded power temporarily on July 31, Castro told Argentine newspaper Pagina 12 he had started to regain weight after surgery.

"I lost 41 pounds, but I'm putting weight back on -- already almost half of what I lost," Castro said. "You have to do things one step at a time. You must remember that the machine being repaired is 80 years old."

Conference officials distributed copies of the interview to all the countries at the summit.


States including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Iran appeared keen to use the summit to forge a broad front of countries opposed to the United States on issues ranging from ideology, nuclear power and oil.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in response to a question about whether his country could reach an agreement on its nuclear program at a U.N. General Assembly meeting next week: "I'm going to New York to answer these questions before the United Nations."

Venezuela would come to Iran's support if it was invaded as it would do the same for Cuba, he said, telling a group of G-15 presidents including Zimbabwe, Algeria and Raul Castro: "Imperialism goes against Iran and it would go against us all."

"The American empire is in decline. Nobody can deny that. It's clear," he said earlier.

Any anti-U.S. agenda will likely cause discomfort among the leaders of states at the summit such as Pakistan, India and the Philippines who have forged closer ties with Washington over security since the September 11 attacks.

Delegates were due to discuss a conference document that included sharp criticism of Israel over its recent war in Lebanon and a rejection of the term "axis of evil", used by President Bush in 2002 to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf were due to hold talks in Havana on Saturday, hoping to ease tensions after a year of recriminations over terror attacks and Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani officials said.

The two leaders last met a year ago at the United Nations, but expectations for the talks were modest given political pressure both faced at home, the officials said.

The talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors follow a summer of accusations and canceled meetings following the July 11 train bombings that killed 186 people in Mumbai.

The Non-Aligned Movement countries were originally linked by a desire to mark their independence from Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.

Some 116 nations make up the movement, comprising more than half of the membership of the United Nations and a variety of national viewpoints.

In other comments, Chavez also accused the U.S. of denying visas for some of his aides for his upcoming trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. State Department said some of the applications were submitted late and some applicants were not Venezuelan citizens.
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